December Painting of the Month – I Saw Three Ships

I Saw Three Ships was my Christmas painting of the month, two years ago, with the exquisite watercolour by Walter Crane. This was all prior to the coronavirus pandemic which has dominated our lives since. It has always been one of my favourite carols with its poetic words of rejoicing and enticing melody. The tune is undoubtedly from English folk traditions but what about the lyrics. 

The theme of the carol has always interested historians, especially the verse referring to the ships arriving into Bethlehem, far from the sea, of course. Does it refer to the alleged relics of the Magi being born into Cologne on the Rhine in three ships, or merchant ships of King Wenceslas. Most appealing to me is that they were actually camels – “the ships of the desert”

While obviously Christian lyrics the carol is a song for great hope and rejoicing. While the birth of Jesus heralds the start of the New Testament I think the song hides an even greater cause for rejoicing. It commemorates the story of the Magi, The Three Kings. This is the point where God, tired of the disobedience of the Israelites invites the Gentiles, or the whole world into his Kingdom. The Magi represent the outside world who are now invited in.

Lydia Breed, I Saw Three Ships, 1967, woodcut, 20cm x 44cm. (Digital image, Boston Public Library)
Lydia Breed, I Saw Three Ships, 1967, woodcut, 20cm x 44cm. (Digital image, Boston Public Library)

My December painting is a woodcut by the American artist Lydia Breed (1925-2019) entitled I Saw Three Ships. This delightful print shows three ships in a traditional environment with the sea and birds. More than ever we are looking for hope, rejoicing and liberation from occupation; this time from the force of coronavirus.

And all the bells on earth shall ring,

⁠On Christmas day, on Christmas day;

And all the bells on earth shall ring,

⁠On Christmas day in the morning.

And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,

⁠On Christmas day, on Christmas day;

And all the Angels in Heaven shall sing,

⁠On Christmas Day in the morning.

And all the Souls on Earth shall sing,

⁠On Christmas day, on Christmas day;

And all the Souls on Earth shall sing,

⁠On Christmas Day in the morning.

Then let us all rejoice amain,

⁠On Christmas Day , on Christmas day;

Then let us all rejoice amain,

⁠On Christmas day in the morning.

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