Sacred Sunday: The Art of Christmas, Part 1 of 3

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For three Sundays (Advent Sundays – marking the Christmas season between the Sunday nearest St Andrew’s Day and encompassing the next three Sundays, ending on Christmas Day), I will bring to you in three parts a variety of Christian art from the 10th to the 15th century. The artists who created these pieces will vary as much as the actual art itself. The similarities will be in the theme itself: Christ is born, Glory to the new-born King!

Nativity scenes

Nativity c. 1513 Linden panel, 36 x 26 cm Staatliche Museen, Berlin Albrecht Altdorfer (b. ca. 1480, Regensburg, d. 1538, Regensburg)

Nativity
c. 1513
Linden panel, 36 x 26 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin
Albrecht Altdorfer
(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.

Nativity (Cell 5) 1440-41 Fresco, 193 x 164 cm Convento di San Marco, Florence Fra Angelico (b. ca. 1400, Vicchio nell Mugello, d. 1455, Roma)

Nativity (Cell 5)
1440-41
Fresco, 193 x 164 cm
Convento di San Marco, Florence
Fra Angelico
(b. ca. 1400, Vicchio nell Mugello, d. 1455, Roma)

This is the fresco on the wall of Cell 5 of the Convento di San Marco in Florence.

The represented saints are St Catherine of Alexandria and St Peter the Martyr. It is partly attributed to the school of Fra Angelico.

The Nativity 1597 Oil on canvas, 134 x 105 cm Museo del Prado, Madrid Federico Fiori Barocci (b. 1526, Urbino, d. 1612, Urbino)

The Nativity
1597
Oil on canvas, 134 x 105 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
Federico Fiori Barocci
(b. 1526, Urbino, d. 1612, Urbino)

Aspects of what was to be known as the Baroque style can be seen in Barocci’s Nativity.

The Mystical Nativity c. 1500 Tempera on canvas, 109 x 75 cm National Gallery, London Sandro Botticelli (b. 1445, Firenze, d. 1510, Firenze)

The Mystical Nativity
c. 1500
Tempera on canvas, 109 x 75 cm
National Gallery, London
Sandro Botticelli
(b. 1445, Firenze, d. 1510, Firenze)

There is no documentary evidence to prove whether or not Botticelli was one of Savonarola’s follower. But certain themes in his later works – like the Mystic Nativity – are certainly derived from the sermons of Savonarola, which means that the artist was definitely attracted by that personality so central to the cultural and political events of Florence during the last years of the fifteenth century.

It has been suggested that this picture, the only surviving work signed by Botticelli, was painted for his own private devotions, or for someone close to him. It is certainly unconventional, and does not simply represent the traditional events of the birth of Jesus and the adoration of the shepherds and the Magi or Wise Men. Rather it is a vision of these events inspired by the prophecies in the Revelation of Saint John. Botticelli has underlined the non-realism of the picture by including Latin and Greek texts, and by adopting the conventions of medieval art, such as discrepancies in scale, for symbolic ends. The Virgin Mary, adoring a gigantic infant Jesus, is so large that were she to stand she could not fit under the thatch roof of the stable. They are, of course, the holiest and the most important persons in the painting.

The angels carry olive branches, which two of them have presented to the men they embrace in the foreground. These men, as well as the presumed shepherds in their short hooded garments on the right and the long-gowned Magi on the left, are all crowned with olive, an emblem of peace. The scrolls wound about the branches in the foreground, combined with some of those held by the angels dancing in the sky, read: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men’ (Luke 2:14). As angels and men move ever closer, from right to left, to embrace, little devils scatter into holes in the ground. The scrolls held by the angels pointing to the crib once read: `Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world’ the words of John the Baptist presenting Christ (John 1:29). Above the stable roof the sky has opened to reveal the golden light of paradise. Golden crowns hang down from the dancing angels’ olive branches. Most of their scrolls celebrate Mary: ‘Mother of God’, ‘Bride of God’, ‘Sole Queen of the World’.

The puzzling Greek inscription at the top of the picture has been translated: ‘I Sandro made this picture at the conclusion of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy in the half time after the time according to the 11th chapter of Saint John in the second woe of the Apocalypse during the loosing of the devil for three and a half years then he will be chained in the 12th chapter and we shall see […] as in this picture.’ The missing words may have been ‘him burying himself’. The ‘half time after the time’ has been generally understood as a year and a half earlier, that is, in 1498, when the French invaded Italy, but it may mean a half millennium (500 years) after a millennium (1000 years): 1500, the date of the painting. Like the end of the millennium in the year 1000, the end of the half millennium in 1500 also seemed to many people to herald the Second Coming of Christ, prophesied in Revelation.

At a time when Florentine painters were recreating nature with their brush, Botticelli freely acknowledged the artificiality of art. In the pagan Venus and Mars he turned his back on naturalism in order to express ideal beauty. In the ‘Mystic Nativity’ he went further, beyond the old-fashioned to the archaic, to express spiritual truths – rather like the Victorians who were to rediscover him in the nineteenth century, and who associated the Gothic style with an ‘Age of Faith’.

Nativity c. 1445 Oil on wood, 80 x 56 cm Museo del Prado, Madrid Dieric the Elder Bouts (b. ca. 1415, Haarlem, d. 1475, Leuven)

Nativity
c. 1445
Oil on wood, 80 x 56 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid
Dieric the Elder Bouts
(b. ca. 1415, Haarlem, d. 1475, Leuven)

The right part of the central panel of the Triptych of the Virgin represents the Nativity.

Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence 1609 Oil on canvas, 268 x 197 cm Formerly in Oratorio di San Lorenzo, Palermo Caravaggio (b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)

Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence
1609
Oil on canvas, 268 x 197 cm
Formerly in Oratorio di San Lorenzo, Palermo
Caravaggio
(b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)

The painting representing the Nativity was stolen in October 1969 from the church of San Lorenzo in Palermo, where it had been since it was made. The composition is less successful than in other cases; the contained and pensive atmosphere, however, shows that at this stage Caravaggio associated the idea of advent of Christ not with the joy of Redemption but with a future that was at best uncertain.

Under the roof of the stable in Bethlehem, whose side walls are disappearing into brownish darkness, shepherds and saints gathered to worship the newborn Christ-child in such a way that we can make out Archdeacon Lawrence on the left only after a second look, and viewers may well mistake St Francis for a shepherd. One figure, the patron, represents the church for which the picture was intended, and the other, the Order to which the church belongs. We cannot be entirely sure who Joseph, the foster-father, is.

The center of the picture is shared out between the figures who have come to worship. The naked Christ-child lies there on a bed of straw and some white drapery. Exhausted, the Holy Virgin is crouching on the ground behind him – wearing an unusually cut dress, which is falling from her right shoulder – looking at the child. The ox, which appears behind St Lawrence, is also looking in that direction. Above all this, an angel is flying down from heaven. In his left hand he is holding a banner on which the words of the gloria are written. His right hand is pointing upwards, as if, by also looking at the baby, he wanted to reassure the Christ-child that he really is the Son of God.

Apse: 3. Nativity of Christ 1296-1300 Mosaic Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome Pietro Cavallinini (b. ca. 1250, Roma, d. 1330, Roma)

Apse: 3. Nativity of Christ
1296-1300
Mosaic
Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome
Pietro Cavallinini
(b. ca. 1250, Roma, d. 1330, Roma)

The third scene of the Mary cycle, the Nativity of Christ, is in the apse. This scene is dominated by the cave that shelters the child in his crib and Mary seated beside him. This scene has precedents in Byzantine art following Byzantine iconography but rendering it in traditional Roman form showing a direct influence of the late antique art.

The Nativity c. 1465 Wood, 130 x 97 cm National Gallery of Art, Washington Petrus Christus (b. 1410/20, Baarle, d. 1475/76, Brugge)

The Nativity
c. 1465
Wood, 130 x 97 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Petrus Christus
(b. 1410/20, Baarle, d. 1475/76, Brugge)

The painter, a follower of Jan van Eyck, here illustrates the Biblical theme in terms of contemporary life in his native city of Bruges. Joseph, for example, is shown as a Flemish peasant who, realizing he is on holy ground, has removed his wooden clogs. Under the influence of Rogier van der Weyden, Christus has framed the scene with a sculptured archway, typical of late Gothic churches in Flanders. These simulated sculpture groups, depicting the stories in Genesis of man and his sin, illustrate the historical reason for the subject of the painting, the coming of Christ as the Redeemer.

Nativity (Holy Night) 1528-30 Oil on canvas, 256,5 x 188 cm Gemäldegalerie, Dresden Correggio (b. ca. 1490, Correggio, d. 1534, Correggio)

Nativity (Holy Night)
1528-30
Oil on canvas, 256,5 x 188 cm
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden
Correggio
(b. ca. 1490, Correggio, d. 1534, Correggio)

The painting was commissioned in October 1522 and completed at the end of the decade. It has been described as the first monumental nocturnal scene in European painting, and it is an ideal companion to the Madonna with St Jerome, also known as The Day, painted only a few years earlier for another private chapel.

The artist, following the trail blazed by a number of celebrated works by Titian, interprets a scene that is fully ‘à la chandell’ and produces an outstanding result. The light appears simultaneously to bathe and to emerge from the Child, who is lying on a rough pallet, only to soften on the face of the Virgin, tenderly rapt in a maternal embrace. They are surrounded by the fluid gestures of the shepherds and of St Joseph, who is holding back the donkey, and by the kicking legs of the angels transported by the cloud that spreads hazily through the picture.

Although attenuated by the dim nocturnal light that tones down all the shades, the painting is not lacking in color and the chiaroscuro spreads over and softens every form, bringing out their rotundities and caressing those leaves that are reminiscent of Leonardo and Veneto-Ferrarese painting. It is a picture that points the way toward the future Lombard investigation of luministic effects, and was used as a model by such painters as Procaccini, Reni, and Domenichino, and even later on, by Barocci and Maratta.

The Nativity c. 1490 Panel, 76,5 x 56 cm Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest Gerard David (b. ca. 1460, Oudewater, d. 1523, Bruges)

The Nativity
c. 1490
Panel, 76,5 x 56 cm
Szépmûvészeti Múzeum, Budapest
Gerard David
(b. ca. 1460, Oudewater, d. 1523, Bruges)

Nativity 1308-11 Tempera on wood, 43,5 x 44,5 cm National Gallery of Art, Washington Duccio di Buoninsegna (b. ca. 1255, d. 1319, Siena)

Nativity
1308-11
Tempera on wood, 43,5 x 44,5 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Duccio di Buoninsegna
(b. ca. 1255, d. 1319, Siena)

Although remaining faithful to Byzantine iconography, the Nativity scene pays greater attention to space, which is well distributed and amplified by the measured rhythm of the gestures. The narrative is enriched with descriptive details, combining facts drawn from Luke and from the apocryphal gospels, such as the two midwives bathing the Child (probably Salome and Zelomi) and the ox and the ass, while Joseph is portrayed in his usual thoughtful attitude, sitting outside the grotto.

Paumgartner Altar (central panel) c. 1503 Oil on lime panel, 155 x 126 cm Alte Pinakothek, Munich Albrecht Dürer (b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)

Paumgartner Altar (central panel)
c. 1503
Oil on lime panel, 155 x 126 cm
Alte Pinakothek, Munich
Albrecht Dürer
(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)

The central scene represents the Nativity. Mary and Joseph are kneeling in the foreground of an architectural scene constructed according to the laws of central perspective, which opens out to the rear onto a broad landscape; next to them the numerous small figures of the donor family are kneeling before the newborn Christ Child. From the back, two shepherds seen in a perspectival foreshortening are climbing up to the place of Christ’s birth, and on the left two more are watching the events. The center of the composition are Mary and the Christ Child, and they are additionally emphasized by the baldachin-like roof. The Star of Bethlehem is emblazoned in the sky, and in the background an angel is announcing the birth of the Savior to the shepherds.

Nativity 1490-95 Wood, 239 x 209 cm San Domenico, Siena Francesco di Giorgio Martini (b. 1439, Siena, d. 1502, Siena)

Nativity
1490-95
Wood, 239 x 209 cm
San Domenico, Siena
Francesco di Giorgio Martini
(b. 1439, Siena, d. 1502, Siena)

This beautiful altarpiece is completed by a lunette attributed to Matteo di Giovanni and has altar steps painted by Bernardino Fungai. As such it sums up the Sienese school in the late fifteenth century. After his years in Urbino working as an architect, Francesco di Giorgio took up painting once more. The evolution in his style compared to his earlier work is obvious. The artist had by now fully mastered the depiction of space. The figures are scattered, paired into couples whose movements counterbalance each other.Colours are carefully juxtaposed. The grandiose ruined arch that dominates the scene showed Francesco di Giorgio’s love of the classical world which he depicted with the deft strokes of an architectural drawing.

Nativity, at Night 1484-90 Oil on oak, 34 x 25 cm National Gallery, London Geertgen tot Sint Jans (b. 1460/65, Leiden, d. 1490, Haarlem)

Nativity, at Night
1484-90
Oil on oak, 34 x 25 cm
National Gallery, London
Geertgen tot Sint Jans
(b. 1460/65, Leiden, d. 1490, Haarlem)

This picture is attributed to Geertgen by analogy with works given to him in seventeenth-century sources. It may derive from a lost altarpiece; at this period large-scale compositions were frequently adapted for domestic devotions.

The subject of this magical little panel is vision: first, the mystic vision recounted by a fourteenth-century saint, Bridget of Sweden, in which she witnessed the painless birth of Christ, the Virgin’s adoration of her son, and the baby’s radiance eclipsing Joseph’s candle; secondly, the ocular vision of dazzled shepherds shielding their eyes as the angel appears, like a shooting star, to announce the birth of the Messiah; thirdly, the marvelling gaze of childlike angels, ox and ass, Mary and St Joseph upon the Light of the World naked in the manger. And, finally, it makes evident a new vision of piety current in the Northern Netherlands, in which humility is the key to holiness, and a new artistic vision.

The divine radiance is not embodied in costly expanses of gold and rare pigments crafted into a precious object. It is made visible to us through Geertgen’s patient modulation of darkness, the winter’s night barely pierced by distant stars, hardly warmed by fire, only faintly lit by the candle Joseph once held (probably lost when the panel was trimmed at some time in the past). Through Geertgen’s mastery of naturalistic description, with only a shorthand notation of thin rays of real gold beaming from the holy infant, this winter’s night as it was before the birth of Christ can now be seen to have truly been, as is written in the Gospel of St John, a night in which ‘if a man walk … he stumbleth, because there is no light in him’ (11:10).

No. 17 Scenes from the Life of Christ: 1. Nativity: Birth of Christ 1304-06 Fresco, 200 x 185 cm Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua Giotto di Bondone (b. 1267, Vespignano, d. 1337, Firenze)

No. 17 Scenes from the Life of Christ: 1. Nativity: Birth of Christ
1304-06
Fresco, 200 x 185 cm
Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua
Giotto di Bondone
(b. 1267, Vespignano, d. 1337, Firenze)

The simple shelter under which the Virgin and her Child seek refuge is situated in the middle of a bleak rocky landscape. Mary turns on her side on the bed in order to receive the new-born baby from the arms of a midwife — a natural and spontaneous gesture, which is captured by the way mother and child look at one another. Although on the periphery, this exchange of glances seems to be the actual centre of the portrayal, which is expanded to include the scene of the Annunciation to the shepherds.

Nativity 1460s Tempera on wood, 174 x 73 cm Christian Museum, Esztergom Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia (b. ca. 1399, Siena, d. 1482, Siena)

Nativity
1460s
Tempera on wood, 174 x 73 cm
Christian Museum, Esztergom
Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia
(b. ca. 1399, Siena, d. 1482, Siena)

This panel probably shows a work produced by Giovanni di Paolo when he was already past his prime. On this picture the line of the roof of the stable slants steeply downward to the right, and the landscape roses to the right with its tiny, improbaly small bushes and rocks, recalling fantastic turrets, and leads the eyes upward. The figure of the Madonna bent forward and the nodding St Joseph – tranquil pose – emphasize the vertical axis of the composition. This vertical axis, however, does not coincide with the median of the picture, and is not even completely vertical, but leans somewhat to the left, or in other words it stresses the asymmetry rather than the equilibrium of the composition.

Concert of Angels and Nativity c. 1515 Oil on wood, 265 x 304 cm Musée d'Unterlinden, Colmar Matthias Grünewald (original name Mathis Gothardt Neithardt), (b. 1470/80, Würzburg, d. 1528, Halle)

Concert of Angels and Nativity
c. 1515
Oil on wood, 265 x 304 cm
Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar
Matthias Grünewald (original name Mathis Gothardt Neithardt),
(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”.

Nativity 1403 Mixed media on wood, 73 x 56 cm Parish church, Bad Wildungen Konrad von Soest (active 1394-1422 in Westphalie)

Nativity
1403
Mixed media on wood, 73 x 56 cm
Parish church, Bad Wildungen
Konrad von Soest
(active 1394-1422 in Westphalie)

The work of the Dortmund painter Konrad von Soest should be seen in the context of early Cologne painting. This panel from the Wildung Altarpiece, which is dated 1403 and signed on the reverse side with “per conradem pictorem de suato” (by Konrad of Soest, painter), owe their effects to their detail and gently flowing style. The colour contrasts are surprising, with bright gold and yellows as well as deep blues and reds enlivening the scenes. Konrad’s Nativity is a successful genre scene, showing Joseph on his knees, his cheeks puffed out as he blows on the fire. As we can see from his face, the world portrayed here is that of the earthy and blunt peasant – people and objects from everyday life provided religious painting with a range of pictorial effects and subjects.

Nativity 1523 Oil on wood, 46 x 36 cm National Gallery of Art, Washington Lorenzo Lotto (b. ca. 1480, Venezia, d. 1556, Loreto)

Nativity
1523
Oil on wood, 46 x 36 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Lorenzo Lotto
(b. ca. 1480, Venezia, d. 1556, Loreto)

The pastoral mood, asymmetrical design, and complex spatial arrangements are typical Venetian variants on a traditional theme. Most unusual are the crucifix behind, and the mousetrap, on which the artist has signed his name in the lower right corner. The crucifix is a late – possibly much later – addition by Lotto. The idea of concentrating in one image the initial (the Nativity) and final (the Crucifixion) moment of the Redemption seems to derive from Venetian ideas.

The Nativity (detail) 1440s Panel Collection Lippmann, Berlin Bernat Martorell (b. ca. 1400, Sant Celoni, d. 1452, Barcelona)

The Nativity (detail)
1440s
Panel
Collection Lippmann, Berlin
Bernat Martorell
(b. ca. 1400, Sant Celoni, d. 1452, Barcelona)

Borrassá was succeeded as central figure of the Barcelona school by Bernat Martorell, a painter in whom scrupulous attention to detail is combined with touches of poetry. In spite of the limitations of his empirical and conventional perspective, he was able to convey an impression of depth and space, and to give life to every element of his composition.

St Peter (Grabow) Altarpiece: Nativity 1379-83 Tempera on wood, 80 x 57 cm Kunsthalle, Hamburg Master Bertram (b. ca. 1345, Minden, d. 1415, Hamburg)

St Peter (Grabow) Altarpiece: Nativity
1379-83
Tempera on wood, 80 x 57 cm
Kunsthalle, Hamburg
Master Bertram
(b. ca. 1345, Minden, d. 1415, Hamburg)

“The panel of the high altar of St. Peter in Hamburg was made in 1383. The artist was named Bertram of Mynden.” – so states an entry in the Hamburg Chronicles.

Master Bertram from Minden, the creator of this work, used the same pictorial means as Konrad von Soest. His stable in the Nativity is even more spartan and ramshackle in appearance than that of Konrad. Joseph bends to present the Christ Child to Mary. At her side lie a miniature ox and ass.

Next week: Part 2 of 3 of Sacred Sunday: The Art of Christmas

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