By unlucky coincidence, the Royal Mail launched this year’s set of Christmas stamps the day before the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition opened at the National Gallery. On one hand, both versions of The Virgin of the Rocks in the same room; on the other, to ‘celebrate the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible’, Mary looking like one of the Bisto kids, but more inane, with her head wrapped in an ethnically imprecise white cloth, covering her hair but knotted oddly at the back. That’s on the first-class stamp, purporting to illustrate Matthew 1.23 (‘Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son’). The larger version shows a dove, apparently perched on a Windsor chair.
On the second-class stamp, a bulky lilac-clad angel hovers above the sleeping Joseph. The reference is to Matthew 1.21. Biblical scholars may notice that this incident is in fact described in verse 20, but I leave that to them; it’s the aesthetics that bother me. I asked a recent art school graduate, now working in book design, if this was stylish retro of a sort that had passed me by. Apparently not. The 2011 ‘King James Bible’ stamps don’t even have the distinction of harking back to the golden days of Ladybird Books.