A few years back, when I bought my first vintage stereocard 3D viewer, it came with a surprise.
Enclosed within the carefully-wrapped package from Germany was a set of 24 cards portraying ‘The Life of Christ.’
As a series of dramatised scenes from the Nativity to the Ascension, the set was published in the early 1900s by the stereoscopic photography company Underwood & Underwood of New York.
My subsequent interest in Underwood’s activities as a supplier of press photographs ‘taken from stereographs’ led to my doctoral thesis (due to be published in May 2023).
Number 1 in Underwood’s ‘Life of Christ’ set is titled ‘The Nativity. The shepherds adoration.’
Each card comes with a text taken from The Bible, in this case the Gospel according to Luke, chapter 2 verse 16 – ‘And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger’ (Revised Standard Version).
On the verso, there follows a brief description of the scene followed by the card’s title in English, French, German, Spanish, Swedish and Russian.
This gives an indication of the scope of the international market at which such stereocards were aimed.
It seems Underwood were not the only stereoscopic company marketing this 3D ‘Life of Christ’ at the turn of the 20th century, presumably because of its commercial appeal.
I’ve seen other examples of the same set including colourised versions and one marketed by Sears, Roebuck & Company, the American mail order giant.
Close inspection of the nativity scene in its half-stereo version adds to the mystery of what we are being invited to witness.
Is it a painted scene? Or were individually figures placed against a painted backdrop? Or is the tableau the result of a stereographer working with a cast of actors?
It was timely that ‘The Mystery of the Nativity’ (Sky Arts, 20th December 2022), presented by the art historian Waldemar Januszczak, helped shed light on the tradition of scenes depicting the birth of Jesus Christ.
What he ably demonstrated was how little the Bible has to say about events at Bethlehem and how much artists down the centuries have used their imagination to portray the Nativity.
That would help explain the presence in the Underwood stereo of the ‘girl, carrying a basket upon her head’ who, the verso text explains, is ‘an attendant bringing refreshments from the inn.’
If you know any more about the ‘Life of Christ’ stereocard set and its history, I for one would be very interested to learn more about it.
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