In the Christmas season, singing “O come let us adore him…” reminds me of devotional (visual) art, which gives the viewer some ways to come and adore, typically:
- Figures in the image look at or gesture to the viewer to invite you into the scene (e.g. the Botticelli Adoration of 1475, below)
- Figures in the image model devotional posture to help you join in (this is especially strong in the Botticelli Adoration of c.1478-82, below)
- The image imaginatively expands the Biblical account to make it vivid for you (as in the page from the Très Riches Heures, towards the end of this post, that depicts how the three magi might have met each other in order to make their journey together)
Programme music can play a similar role. ‘Programme music’ is instrumental music that seeks to portray an image or narrative (without using sung words). The title of the music tells you what its ‘programme’ is so you can imagine it as you listen. For example, inspired by paintings in the Uffizi Gallery including the 1475 Botticelli above, Ottorino Respighi composed an orchestral suite called Trittico Bottecelliano [Botticelli Triptych] (1927), which includes a movement called “L’adorazione dei Magi.”
Respighi’s musical “Adoration” goes beyond the relatively static moment of the Botticelli painting that inspired it – the magi and their retinues having arrived and gathered around the scene of the nativity – to suggest an entire journey, more in the vein of the work of the Limbourg brothers in the Très Riches Heures illumination below.
It’s up to the listener to fill the story out, but along the way, you’ll hear:
- musical arabesques to give the flavour of the eastern land from which the journey begins
- quotations of “Veni, veni Emmanuel” [“O come, O come, Emmanuel”] to underscore the anticipation of the promised one (see also the post “O Come Emmanuel” and the Great “O” Antiphons)
- quotations of the Neapolitan carol “Tu scendi dalle stelle” [“You came down from the stars”] to depict wonder
So here is a suggestion on how to come and adore in a 10-minute devotional time:
- find your favourite recording of Respighi’s “L’adorazione dei Magi” or play from the linked video at the end of this post
- set a painting of the journey or adoration in front of you; or close your eyes
- imagine preparing to set off on the journey…
- what do you bring with you? – what do the people in your home ask you to take on their behalf?
- what do you anticipate? – what do you most deeply desire?
- how does it feel when your fellow travellers join you? – what do they add to your journey?
- as the landscape before you and behind you changes, what new prospects are revealed ahead? – when you look back, what seems new about the land you’ve travelled?
- leave the prompts behind and keep on imagining, following where the music leads… you might not get to the destination in this short contemplation; it’s OK to take time en route.