Nativity: Birth of Christ 1304-06 Fresco, 200 x 185 cm Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua
Frescoes by GIOTTO
Annunciation and Nativity
Oak, 134 x 56 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
(b. 1410/20, Baarle, d. 1475/76, Brugge)
Annunciation and Nativity (Altarpiece of Observation)
Tempera on panel, 137 x 113 cm, and 26,5 x 114,5 cm
COSSA, Francesco del
(b. ca. 1435, Ferrara, d. ca. 1477, Bologna)
The Annunciation (front), Circumcision and Nativity (back)
c. 1500 Tempera on wood, 19,5 x 9 cm Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
(b. 1472, Firenze, d. 1517, Pian' di Mugnone)
Stylistic elements make datable the diptych at the end of fifteenth century, probably among the works carried out by Baccio before he became a Dominican friar in July 1500. The pictures were conceived as doors of a little tabernacle commissioned by Piero del Pugliese: it had to enclose a lost marble Madonna by Donatello. The panels are in fact painted on both sides, representing on the front The Annunciation in monocrhome and on the back Circumcision and Nativity.
c. 1515 Oil on wood, 265 x 304 cm Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar
(b. 1470/80, Würzburg, d. 1528, Halle)
This panel, also known as "Concert of Angels and Mary in Glory", is the central panel of the second view of the Isenheim Altarpiece. In the iconography relating to Mary, the concert of angels can accompany the Glorification as well as the Nativity.
The musician angels are crowded into the Gothic chapel which fills the left half of the painting. In fact only three of them have instruments in their hands, and only one of them stands out, a blond-haired angel dressed in pale violet robe kneeling and playing the viola da gamba. His exalted expression and his beautiful instrument, however, fill the entire picture with music. The peculiar position of his hand, the way he holds the bow at the wrong end, is certainly not in accordance with contemporary practice; it is merely a compositional solution employed by the master. Behind him we can see one of his mates playing the viola da braccio, and on the left, behind the column, another bird-like, feather-covered angel who also plays the viola da gamba. Grünewald no longer makes the distinction between the nine orders of angels, but refers to their former hierarchy by depicting them as different.
A long-haired female figure, wearing a crown and surrounded by a halo, appears in the doorway of the chapel. She is perhaps a female saint or, according to more recent interpretations, Mary herself before giving birth. The crystal jug on the steps symbolizes her, and the tub and towel refer to the bath to be given the newborn.
Mary, lovingly embracing her child, occupies the right half of the painting. She is flooded with heavenly light originating from God the Father, in which angels flutter around. In the rear on the right we can see the two angels bearing the news to the shepherds. The garden in which Mary sits is a walled-in "hortus conclusus" (enclosed garden) with closed gates. The plants - the rose and the Tree of the Knowledge, the fig tree - also symbolizes Mary.
This altarpiece inspired Paul Hindemith, one of the most significant German composers of the 20th century, to create his opera and symphony entitled "Mathis the Painter".
Oil on wood, 64 x 63 cm
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
MASTER of Flémalle
(b. ca. 1375, Valenciennes, d. 1444, Tournai)
This intimate triptych, which dates from about 1425, is traditionally known as the Mérode Altarpiece, after the family that owned it during the nineteenth century. It illustrates the moment when the archangel Gabriel announces to the Virgin Mary that she has been chosen by God to be the mother of Christ. The patrons of the painting gaze upon this miraculous event from one of the side panels, while Joseph, busy at his carpenter's bench, occupies the other wing. Campin's fascination with the natural and domestic world dominates his telling of the sacred story. He meticulously renders even the smallest details in an innovative technique combining translucent oil overlay on water-based opaque pigments. The resulting optical effects enhance Campin's interpretation of the Virgin's private chamber as an affluent fifteenth century interior filled with household appointments and goods similar to those that the patron would have known. Yet Campin was essentially guided in his choice of objects by the symbolic needs of the story. The brass laver, for example, signifies Mary's purity, as does the Madonna lily in the maiolica pitcher. As an object of private devotion, this painting would have been integrated into the furnishings of the owners' private quarters, where its hinged wings could be opened and closed according to the daily cadence of private prayers or following the traditions of the Christian calendar.
The Mystical Nativity
Tempera on canvas
108.5 x 75 cm
The National Gallery, London
c. 1513 Linden panel, 36 x 26 cm Staatliche Museen, Berlin
(b. ca. 1480, Regensburg, d. 1538, Regensburg)
Staged as a nocturne, this Nativity takes place in a stable so ruinous that an additional miracle may be found in its not having collapsed upon the Holy Family sheltering within. The stable clearly enjoyed a loftier function before housing ox, ass, and homeless family, probably first built in Bethlehem as part of the palace of David, ancestor of the Virgin.
69 5/8 x 58 1/4 in (177 x 148 cm)
Cell 5, Convent of San Marco, Florence
c. 1400 Tempera on walnut, 41 x 29,5 cm Galerie mittelalterlicher österreichischer Kunst, Vienna
UNKNOWN MASTER, Austrian
(active around 1400)
The artist of this painting is referred to as Master of Salzburg.
In this picture the scene of the Nativity is represented according to an apocryphal story of the Gospel: the Virgin is reclining on her bed while two midwives are on the point of giving a bath to the Infant. The woman in green is taking the Child from His mother, while the other is taking care that the bathwater is at right temperature. The bath puts an emphasis on the human aspect of the divine Child and is a hint to baptism. Joseph is seated on the right-hand side deep in thought. He holds his staff with his left hand, and is supporting his head with his right hand. The ox and the ass at the manger in the back seem to warm the straw and the small cambric kerchief with their breath.
In addition to some stylistic resemblances the painting is reminiscent in other respects too of the Trebon Master's picture of the same scene. In both pictures the composition is divided by the building of the stable, with the difference that here the supports of the stable look like the frame of the scene represented, and divide the surface into two parts and not into three. In both pictures the supporting pole, emphatically placed in the foreground, separates Joseph, who views the events from the back and plays a role similar to the spectator's. In this picture too we can see birds on the roof of the stable, but they are shaped more firmly and realistically (as are the figures) than in the work of the Master of Trebon.
In spite of the simplicity of the presentation and the somewhat rugged shaping of the figures with their rather large heads the susceptibility of the International Gothic style to elegance and decorative patterns evinces itself in this painting too. The elegance can be seen in the buoyant lines of the draperies, and in the Virgin's mantle, which clings to her body as if it were wet; the decorativeness in the way in which the painter has used the opportunities inherent in the rustic surroundings, and brought into harmony the pattern of the thatched roof, the mat and the fence, which are made of similar materials, and there is an additional harmonious touch in the plaited hair of one of the midwives.
As in a great many other pictures of the period the ground is exceedingly steep here; compared to the figures in the foreground the stable seems to be high, on the other hand the beam underneath the roof touches the animals' heads. Although the white piece of cloth between the two midwives-in all probability a napkin, another symbol of the human nature of Jesus-looks as though it were hovering, in fact it lies on the ground. All this is not surprising, since these forms do not convey space, they are meant, first and foremost, to fill up the surface of the picture.
1520 Oil on wood, 105,5 x 70,4 cm Alte Pinakothek, Munich
BALDUNG GRIEN, Hans
(b. 1484/85, Schwabisch-Gmünd, d. 1545, Strassburg)
An idyllic representation of the frequently painted subject from one of the most peculiar German Renaissance artists.
By electing to portray the main figures simply and quietly at the back of the stable, Baldung draws the eye first to the ruined architecture and the ox and ass seen in larger scale on the left. His construction of the interior embraces the opposite poles of precise foreshortening - as in the incisively drawn plynth in the foreground - and perspective uncertainty, something heightened by the differences in scale between animals and the figures. Viewer irritation and Mannerist alienation are quite clearly not the artist's aims, however.
With the help of painted light, whose source seems to lie beyond the natural world, Baldung portrays the miracle of the Holy Night with what is for him an unusual depth of feeling. The infant Jesus, held in his swaddling bands by putti, seems to radiate light onto Joseph's red coat and Mary's hands and face. Through the brick archway in the cracked, plastered wall, we glimpse a second miraculous vision: an angel encircled by a radiant glory is appearing to a shepherd watching his flock. The fusion of light and shade and the soft modulation of the contours suggest that Baldung may have come into contact with the Danube School.
1597 Oil on canvas, 134 x 105 cm Museo del Prado, Madrid
BAROCCI, Federico Fiori
(b. 1526, Urbino, d. 1612, Urbino)
Aspects of what was to be known as the Baroque style can be seen in Barocci's Nativity.
c. 1430 Tempera on pine panel, 100 x 72 cm Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest
UNKNOWN MASTER, Bohemian
(active around 1430 in Vyssi Brod)
The painter is referred to as the Master of the Vyssi Brod (Hohenfurth) Carrying of the Cross. This master was the most attractive and most gifted South-Bohemian painter of the third decade of the 15th century. (This master is not identical with the more famous Master of Hohenfurth, active in 1350-70 in Prague.)
The miraculous event is represented in a scene of many figures, including Joseph, the Virgin Mary and the group of angels adoring the Child, as well as the shepherds listening to the heavenly message behind the stable. As a sign of the new times and increased demand for realism, space construction has grown more intricate, the building is less like scenery and the picture is crowded with figures. Congestion is enhanced by the great number of characters, many animals, and the scroll containing glorifying words. All these are, however, marked by a cool, distinguished restraint, conforming to the pictorial concepts which ruled in the early decades of the century. This restraint radiates from the faces of the protagonists, perhaps still more clearly from those of the angels; it is intensified by the colouring and conveyed by the treatment of the garments. The folds of the Virgin's cloak and those of the draperies hung over the beam seem to radiate coldness.
Oil on wood, 80 x 56 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
BOUTS, Dieric the Elder
(b. ca. 1415, Haarlem, d. 1475, Leuven)
The right part of the central panel of the Triptych of the Virgin represents the Nativity.
Oil on wood, 87 x 70 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon
MASTER of Flémalle
(b. ca. 1375, Valenciennes, d. 1444, Tournai)
The Nativity is the most famous work of the Master (Robert Campin). It is unusual in that it juxtaposes on a single panel three distinct episodes from the life of Christ: the Nativity proper, the legend of the midwives, and the adoration of the shepherds.
The child and his parents are shown on the threshold of a rather ramshackle wooden stable. The thatched roof has a hole in it and the walls are dilapidated, revealing the ox and the ass, who, untypically for such a composition, have turned their backs on the newborn infant, rather than drawing near to warm him with their breath. The Virgin is kneeling, her hands held out in a gesture of adoration and her eyes lowered. At her feet, the Christ Child lies on the bare earth, radiant with light.
Joseph, who had been a figure of mockery throughout the Middle Ages and even as recently as Broederlam, is here presented as a venerable old man. He holds a candle in one hand, and with the other shelters its flame from the wind. In the foreground, on the right of the composition, are the two midwives who, according to an apocryphal Gospel, were summoned by Joseph in a moment of anxiety. Behind this first group, the upper part of a stable door has swung wide open to reveal the three shepherds, seemingly prevented from approaching any closer by awe and respect.
Hovering above the scene are four angels. As if exempted from the laws of gravity, they sweep past borne on the wind. They are holding phylacteries, on one of which is written a message. It is addressed to one of the midwives, whose right hand is paralysed: "Tangue puerum et sanabaris" ("touch the child and you shall be healed"). As in the art of the Van Eyck brothers, Campin's painting is minutely detailed in its realism. Light is an important stylistic and symbolic element: the candle which St Joseph holds alight even though it is day reminds the viewer that Jesus was born during the night, and that darkness gave way suddenly to light, as the laws of nature were overturned.
The most striking element in this Nativity, however, is certainly the extended landscape that spreads out behind the stable. Beyond the two midwives, a rutted track running beside a stream leads the eye deep into the picture space. The track is bordered by pollarded willows and tall trees with fine branches. A path joins the track and leads across a meadow surrounded by a wicker fence. A man and a woman are walking along the path; they are wearing capes and are accompanied by a peasant woman carrying a basket of eggs on her head. Further on is a large farmhouse, its yard surrounded by high walls, and beyond this again lies a village with its houses, a lake nestling between hills and a small farm with vineyards perched on a slope. To the left of these stands a town with many splendid buildings, above which a small castle sits perched on a rocky outcrop. It is winter, but the sun is still visible between two mountain peaks, its ray spreading out from the golden disk in a symbol of renewal and redemption.
Wood, 86 x 55 cm
Groeninge Museum, Bruges
(b. 1410/20, Baarle, d. 1475/76, Brugge)
The two panels by Christus, the Annunciation and the Nativity were quite badly worn, but painstakingly restored. Both of them are signed and dated (1452) and were probably painted as part of a triptych or polyptych. They reveal Christus as a precise designer of space and moulder of volumes. The figures in the Annunciation resemble statues arranged in a geometrically constructed show-case. It is the first painting in the Netherlands with a correct central perspective.