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Anzac Christmas at St Paul’s

Steve Dyer

‘Anzac Christmas at St Paul’s, Melbourne’, Honest History, 3 March 2015

Just before Christmas last year, in the entrance to St Paul’s Anglican Cathedral in Melbourne, there sat a nativity scene by artist Jan McLellan Rizzo. It was life-size, in black on white with gold highlights. Its background was infused with the flowers, animals and landscape of Australia. It contrasted with the Cathedral’s Gothic revival style, while also consciously echoing the screens of Europe’s Gothic Cathedrals.[1] But the title on the scene summoned up the more recent past of the land where it resided: ‘Anzac Christmas’.[2]

St Paul's Picture 1Jan Rizzo’s work (Steve Dyer)

The figures in the scene were different from traditional nativity portrayals. The youthful, even boyish, worshippers wore the distinctive long AIF Great War jackets with prominent patch pockets and Light Horse regiment colour patches[3]. Their slouch hats were adorned with the feathers of the Light Horse. Jan Rizzo’s inspiration was not, however, the impending 100th anniversary of the Gallipoli landings, although that event was in her mind,[4] but a 1922 Anzac Christmas artwork from Kinglake, Victoria.

Shepherds in khaki

St Peter’s Anglican Church, Kinglake, was one of many buildings created in the early 1920s as memorials to Australian soldiers of the Great War. A Mr and Mrs Rosman donated the land as a gesture of thanks for the safe return of two of their sons from active service.[5] The church was dedicated in November 1922 as a ‘gift church in honour of our men fallen in the war’.[6] Above the altar in the new church was a nativity scene in oils paid for by the vicar, Rev. E. S. Chase. It depicted ‘the Young Child and His Mother and the shepherds who have reached Him before us, our shepherds in khaki’[7]. Not the traditional shepherds, but our shepherds in khaki: an Anzac Christmas.

The artist, Violet Teague,[8] explained the background to her work:

Two years ago your vicar told me that Kinglake was building a gift church as a memorial … I asked and received his permission to paint the altar piece in memory of five men dear to me. He too had a name to commemorate, that of his nephew …[9]  The picture itself needs little explanation. I have called it “The Adoration of the Shepherds.” Who is a shepherd? The good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep and shepherds were the first to greet our Lord. It was the wise men who followed the star and came to where the young child lay, but these shepherds of our day, so many and so faithful, they followed a star too, and went their brave way, “per castra ad astra”.[10]

Seven Kinglake men who died in the Great War were commemorated on a brass plaque on the church wall: S. Farlow, H. Ford, F. Farham, A. Jarvis, J. Lawrie, G. Mains and C. North. Jan Rizzo noted that the soldiers with the green and gold colour patches in Violet Teague’s painting were thought to have been local men from the 9th Light Horse Regiment, which drew its ranks from Victorian and South Australian volunteers.[11] There is a commentary on the symbolism in an essay by a high school student on ‘The enduring legacy of Anzac’.[12]

Survival and revival

‘The adoration of the shepherds’ remained at Kinglake until 1992 when it was placed on permanent loan to St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne, ‘as a precaution against the fire risk in Kinglake’.[13] Restored, reframed and retitled as ‘Anzac Christmas’, it has hung high up in the Cathedral since 1996. The fire risk was realised in the Black Saturday bushfires of February 2009, when the Kinglake Church and its photographic copy of ‘Anzac Christmas’ were destroyed. [14]

St Paul's Picture 2Violet Teague’s work (Steve Dyer)

In 2009 Warrandyte realist painter Walter Magilton created a copy in oils of the original for the new Kinglake Church.[15] Jan Rizzo’s 2014 triptych in St Paul’s Cathedral is an acknowledgement of Violet Teague’s work[16] and contains more extensive symbolism than the 1922 version. Rizzo explains, for example, that Violet Teague is represented by the violets in the manger, the comet in the sky might also be ‘the remnants of night bombardment’ and the Light Horseman holds flowers representing all of Australia’s States and Territories.[17] ‘As the anniversary of the Anzac landing … draws close’, Rizzo writes, ‘the Christmas message of peace and the theme of sacrifice … seem most relevant’.[18]

Appendix: Jan Rizzo’s explanation of her work

[1] JM Rizzo, ‘Anzac Christmas’, explanatory notes displayed in St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne, 24/12/2014. (Appendix)

[2] Rizzo, ‘Anzac Christmas’.

[3] I.e. rectangles divided diagonally. ‘History of Australian colour patches’, Australian War Memorial website, https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/uniform/colourpatches_history/, viewed 9/1/2015.

[4] Rizzo, ‘Anzac Christmas’.

[5] ‘Kinglake church’, Eltham and Whittlesea Shires Advertiser and Diamond Creek Valley Advocate, p. 2, 18/4/1919, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article57636911, via Trove, viewed 9/1/2015.

[6] ‘Kinglake Memorial Church’, Advertiser (Hurstbridge) 24/11/1922, p. 2, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article56637414 , via Trove, viewed 9/1/2015.

[7] ‘Kinglake Memorial Church’.

[8] Australian portrait artist. Mary Alice Lee, ‘Teague, Violet Helen (1872–1951)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/teague-violet-helen-8768/text15369, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 9/1/2015.

[9] M. Perkins, ‘A church is lost but spirit to rebuild thrives’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19/2/2009, http://www.smh.com.au/national/a-church-is-lost-but-spirit-to-rebuild-thrives-20090218-8bhq.html, viewed 12/1/2015.

[10] I.e. “Through hardships to the stars”: letter to the members of the congregation quoted in ‘Kinglake Memorial Church’ Advertiser (Hurstbridge) 24/11/1922, p. 2, via Trove, 9/1/2015.

[11] Rizzo, ‘Anzac Christmas’.

[12] The Enduring Legacy of Anzac, http://simpsonprize.org/prize2011/essays2011/2011_EssayofMeritVIC.pdf, viewed 9/1/2015. I have been unable to identify the author from the Simpson Prize website.

[13] Rising from the Ashes, fundraising brochure for St Peter’s Memorial Church, Kinglake, circa 2010, https://www.melbourneanglican.org.au/NewsAndViews/Documents/St-Peters-Kinglake-Appeal-Brochure.pdf, viewed 9/1/2015.

[14] Rising from the Ashes.

[15] L. Edwards, ‘Artist’s touch restores faith of Kinglake flock’, Sydney Morning Herald, 23/12/2009, http://www.smh.com.au/national/artists-touch-restores-faith-of-kinglake-flock-20091222-lbq4.html . viewed 9/1/2015.

[16] Rizzo, ‘Anzac Christmas’.

[17] ‘Anzac Christmas’.

[18] ‘Anzac Christmas’.