There is no shortage of Nativity picture books illustrated in the religiously traditional manner, portraying this biblical tale in all its ethereal glory. But few dare to show the real human side of this very human story in such a down-to-earth fashion as Julie Vivas has chosen.
For this very reason, “The Nativity” by Julie Vivas is one of my favourites. As noted in the Goodreads review, Julie Vivas “has always dealt with controversial issues in an uncompromising and down-to-earth way”. I couldn’t agree more.
These down-to-earth qualities of her illustrations are at their best in “The Nativity”. I find two Biblical characters particularly striking. The Virgin Mary’s depiction is more than uncompromising. I dare say that any woman who has been pregnant could immediately identify with every uncomfortable posture and pose of the heavily pregnant Mary. There is no idealising of Mary, which is customary for her depictions by most illustrators. No glossing over her clothing and appearance, just a genuine, honest depiction of an ordinary woman, ordinarily pregnant and preparing to give birth. Then sharing the joy of her newborn son’s arrival with others. Love it!
Another character that I’ve been instantly attracted to is Angel Gabriel. The redhead Gabriel in well battered ragged boots having just touched down on Earth is ready for the Annunciation of the big news to the Virgin Mary. Again, no otherworldly beauty, no halo or rosy cheeks. Better still, he breaks the news to Mary over a cup of tea at the kitchen table.
Despite its heavenly substance, Julie’s Gabriel is a realistically unremarkable being. A short pixie hairstyle, a simple robe in earthly green and practical boots that are just perfect for walking the Earth. It could pass for a depiction of another villager if it wasn’t for the magnificent iridescent wings.
I have met Julie Vivas in person at a few events. Same pixie hair cut and sparkling eyes (possibly boots as well). Could Angel Gabriel be a self-portrait of sorts? My speculation anyway…
Julie Vivas, born in 1947, is an acclaimed and celebrated Australian illustrator. She quotes “The Nativity” and “Possum Magic” as her two favourite books that she worked on. “Possum Magic” has been continuously in print since 1983, and its 30th edition was published in 2015. It has sold over 5 million copies and is one of Australia’s top-selling books, which has opened up a world of opportunities for Julie. “The royalties from such a popular book meant I had money to live on while I worked. It also meant I could choose those stories that come from the people and place I live.”, she notes.
Julia Vivas’s distinctive watercolour style is instantly recognisable. Rumour has it that when she tried to experiment with illustrating styles, publishers pushed back, given that her signature style guaranteed the book’s publishing success.
“The Nativity” of Julie Vivas is not to be missed this Christmas (or any Christmas to come). It puts flesh on the bones of a great Biblical story, making it easily accessible by readers of all ages, backgrounds and descents.
Check out a few of my other favourite “Nativity” books I’ve reviewed like, “The First Christmas” with King James Bible’s text and magnificent silhouette illustrations by Jan Pienkowski, the fictional Australian adaptation of the Nativity story in “Applesauce and the Christmas Miracle” created by the Australian talents Glenda Millard and Stephen Michael King.
Also, I couldn’t help but note that Julie Viva’s depiction of the Nativity has found a home this year at the historic St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, Australia. Their Nativity display this year features life-size characters from Julie’s book. I think the juxtaposition of Julie’s down-to-earth characters against the grandeur and reverence of this great cathedral is just beautiful.
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