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An Experiment With A New Nativity

James Wright’s An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump (1768, British).

An Experiment on a Bird in an Air Pump by Joseph Wright of Derby, 1768.jpg

Joseph Wright of Derby’s An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump is a nativity scene for the Age of Science.

Many Nativity scenes use the body of the Christ child as the source of light which illumines all the other figures. Christ is “the light of the world” both figuratively and physically. Gerard van Honthorst’s Nativity scene (pictured directly above) displays the visual formula of the Nativity quite well.

In Wright’s painting, the source of light is the glowing chalice on the table. Directly above the chalice is a bird, a cockatoo, although it might pass for the dove of the Holy Spirit, as well. The bird lights over the glowing chalice, perhaps in a similar way to that of icons of Theophany, wherein the Spirit alights over Christ.

In Wright’s painting, the old man is a suitable stand-in for God the Father, who is positioned authoritatively over the bird.

Taken together, Wright commends to us the birth of a new kind of Truth.

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