Nativity, Adoration of the Magi and the Shepherds: Christmas in Italian Art from 1300s to 1600s
The greatest revolution made in the man’s history is due to a Son. God has created the world, but his Son has saved it.— Vittorio Sgarbi
The ruins that we see in the backround of this painting by Sandro Botticelli and in other representations of the nativity rely on a pagan legend, saying that when a Virgin gives birth, the Temple of the Peace in Rome will collapse.
A Model for the Nativity
The first testimonials of the Christmas feast date back to the III century. The first certain mention of the date of December 25 for the festivity is due to the pope Liberius in the year 354. In the year 435, the pope Sixtus III wanted to build a chapel, called "Sancta Maria at Crib”, in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, containing the slats of the crib. In this way, he gives a first consolidation to the image of the Nativity. The feast of Christmas has spread throughout the whole Christian world during the IV century. Starting from that century, and until at least the Baroque era, the Nativity has become one of the most represented subjects in western art.
As it is known, the sources of the Nativity are the gospels by Luke and Matthew, which tell the childhood of Jesus and contain the principal episodes of the event: the birth in a manger at the presence of the shepherds, the poorest part of the Jewish people and the visit of the Magi, the pagan kings who come to manifest their faith in Jesus. These are also the themes on which the artists concentrate their interest.
The first representations of the Nativity are centred on the figure of the Baby Jesus and are influenced by details from the apocryphal gospels, such as the bath of the Baby, that we can see in a mosaic in the Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere, by Pietro Cavallini, dating back to 1296.
Pietro Cavallini (a. 1240 – a. 1330) is an artist active in Rome, belonging to the generation prior to Giotto. In his nativity we note the absence of Saint Joseph: the scene is populated only by women who take care of Maria and the baby, the setting is a Roman house rather than a cave or a hut.
A few years after, Giotto paints a Nativity in the cycle of frescoes which decorate the walls of the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padua, accomplished in the years around 1305, when he was probably the most celebrated painter in Italy. The distance from the representation by Pietro Cavallini is impressive. The Giotto’s work is one of the most reproduced Christmas’ images for its sense of grace and peace and contains all the basic elements of the Nativity that will inspire his successors.
This harmonious structure deserves to be well observed. The five angels that welcome the birth of Jesus are lined on the roof of the crib, according to a symmetric scheme that follows the profile of the mountain: the first angel is figured upwards, the fifth one, who speaks to the shepherds, downwards. They seem gently lift the crib, completely occupied by the figure of Mary, that is the centre of the painting and holds the Baby with a gesture of affection that we do not find in the earlier representations, where a hieratic Child is at the centre and the other figures in adoration. Mary is the centre of the picture, but she is not at the centre. Giotto has divided the scene in two parts: the first occupies about three quarter of the painting and it is sized to contain the lying body of Mary and the other principal characters, the angels, the Baby, Joseph, the ox and the ass at the left margin. The second part, the right one, contains the shepherds who listen to the announcement from the angel. They are represented at the right margin, conversely to the ox and the ass on the left. The valley between the two mountains marks an ideal line of separation. This asymmetry confers the scene dynamicity and vitality. And Joseph? He’s resting, he sleeps crouched near the manger. Giotto underlines his passive role in the nativity, but at the same time places him in the foreground, as a guardian that ensures protection and serenity.
Piero della Francesca
Now, let me to take a jump of more than 150 years to land in front of the painting by another great master from Tuscany: Piero della Francesca. The monumental, enigmatic figures of his nativity, dated between 1470 and 1485, in the last period of his activity, are incredibly near to the fresco of Giotto, more than to the works of his contemporaries. The initial destination of the Piero della Francesca’s Nativity is not known, as well as the exact date of its composition. Some parts of the painting, such as the lawn in the foreground, are poorly conserved and some scholars believe that they may have never been completed. We find in this painting the same simplicity and the same powerful organization that transpires in the Giotto’s nativity, obviously in a context that is typical of Piero. The ruined crib, topped by a crow that may prelude to the ominous destiny of Christ, is the background for the scene that happens on the lawn outside. The five angels are descended we would say on the land, they sing a song for the Baby lying before them. The Madonna, at the centre of the scene, is concentrated in her pray, separating the blue world descended from the Sky from the terrestrial world, where a relaxed St. Joseph is quietly talking with the shepherds.
Other Nativities in XIV and XV centuries: Fra’ Angelico, Lorenzo Costa, Bramantino, Botticelli
Fra’ Angelico works to the decoration of the Convent of San Marco in the years between 1438 and 1445. The decoration concerns both the common areas of the building and the cells of the monks. It is a enormous work and Fra’ Angelico was nearly surely helped by several pupils. In every picture, the painting is aimed to evidence the religious meaning of the story with a sincere and poetic religiosity that springs from the simplicity of the representation. In the Nativity (cell 5 in the East aisle), the crib with the ox and the ass is in the background (as in the work by Piero della Francesca that we already talked about) to direct the attention of the observer (a monk) on the figure of the Baby, who very simply gains the centre of the scene. At the two sides of the Baby, Mary and Joseph are in adoration, St. Catherine is next to Mary, St. Peter Martyr is next to St. Joseph. The symmetry of this very simple scheme is only broken by the different positions of the two saints, Catherine behind Mary, Peter alongside Joseph. Of course, the presence of the two saints is historically unfounded, but their figures had to inspire the conduct of the monks.
The Nativity painted by Lorenzo Costa around 1490 is a small panel destined to a private buyer. This is evident in the intimacy of the painting: only Mary and Joseph are shown, in an act of full adoration of the Child. They are placed one in front to the other, so that a landscape of Flemish inspiration is visible through the unique central window. It is admirable the shape of the Baby, lying on a white towel spread on a bed of twisted branches: a presage of the Passion and the crown of thorns, similar to others (e.g. the bandages that wrap the Baby and recall the shroud) that we often find in the paintings of the nativities.
The Nativity by Bramantino (born Bartolomeo Suardi, a major exponent of the Lombardy school between the XV and the XVI century) is much richer of characters and allegorical meanings. The event seems to be actualized: the characters show off a contemporary style, the classic stable is substituted by a modern architecture, much more aristocratic, the shepherds are absent. We see instead three monks kneeling, who may represent the three principal orders (Franciscan, Dominican and Benedictine), and two enigmatic figures at the two sides of the scene who are often interpreted as exponents of the pagan world. The man on the left side might be Apollo (some others say Augustus, emperor at the time of the birth of Jesus) and the woman on the right might be identified as the Sibyl Tiburtina, who according to the tradition would have predicted the birth of Jesus. The relation between the two figures is that the Sibyls were inspired by a god (usually Apollo) in their prophecies. The slender and elegant figures are typical of the first phase of Bramantino.
The Mystic Nativity by Sandro Botticelli is a glittering carousel: the angels dancing in the sky above the stable and the angels embracing the men below it transmit a sense of movement and joy. The painting belongs to the late activity of the Master, when he is said to be influenced by the sermons of the Dominican munch Girolamo Savonarola. The canvas is dated 1501, but its origin is obscure, probably, it was destined to a Florentine family. The denomination of “mystic” was added in modern times, because of the symbolism underlying the scene. Botticelli joins the two adorations of the Magi and the shepherds, that in the tradition happen in two different times. The Magi are leaded by the pink angel on the left, the shepherds by the white angel on the right. A third group of virtuous men are embraced by the angels at the bottom of the scene. The angels are present in every level of the painting: the sky, the hut’s roof, the ground of the hut and the green before the hut, where they embrace three men, probably to symbolize the reconciliation between heaven and earth. However the central role is reserved to the group in the hut, who has a larger size than the other figures. Mary is painted in adoration, she has the classic pose than the others Botticelli Madonnas, the Baby stretches his harms towards the Mom, maybe also in this case, to underline the will of reconciliation.
The Young Joseph by Caravaggio
The Nativity that Caravaggio painted at the beginning of the XVII century for the Oratorio di San Lorenzo in Palermo, some say during his stay in Sicily in 1609 others say some years before in Rome, has been stolen in 1969 and never recovered. Many stories have arisen around this theft, including one telling that it would be in the hands of the Mafia and would be the background of their most important meetings. The scene is completely set indoors and is made dramatic by the chiaroscuro. A striking detail is the young age of Joseph, represented by shoulders, speaking with the man near Saint Francis. The light that evidences his blond hair lets to guess a man much younger that the traditional one. The same light evidences and puts in relation, with a transversal movement, the gesture of the angel and the face of the Madonna and the Baby. Mary is a young common woman, sad maybe because she guesses the destiny of the son who is looking at her.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.— Luke 2:8-9
And Joseph? He’s Sleeping….
The Nativity of Correggio is inserted in a wide landscape with the hut on the right, as that one of Giorgione. The shepherds in adoration are substituted by the figure of Saint Elizabeth. Joseph is represented sleeping, according to the tradition that emphasizes his passivity in the generation of Jesus.
The Shepherds: the Humbles Who Welcome Jesus
The shepherds are traditionally interpreted as the most poor and marginalized part of the Israeli People, who first among all are announced the Good News by the God’s Angel. They are the first to rush to the hut to welcome Jesus and are an integrant part to the traditional representation of the nativity. Giorgione (1477 – 1510), the Venetian artist who has anticipated Titian and has given the nature a central role in his works, makes them the protagonists of his nativity (1505). The two shepherds, not the Family with the Baby, occupy the centre of the scene. They are on the same line than the landscape in the background, their connection with the nature and the way they did to come is evident. They bow down before the Baby with their gifts in hands. At the entrance of the cave, the two figures of Mary and Joseph seem smaller and marginal: it is the nature who welcomes Jesus. The Nativity by Correggio, dating some years later (1512), shows some analogies in the construction of the scene. However, here there are no shepherds but a Saint Elizabeth adoring the Baby.
Inside the Venetian territory, we find the shepherds in several other nativities. The most important of these is a large canvas that Tintoretto painted for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice. The originality of Tintoretto’s scenography, an anticipator of the Baroque, is amazing. The hut has become a farmhouse and it is shown to the spectator in its two levels, with a surprisingly modern technique. Downstairs the shepherds offer their gifts, upstairs Mary and Joseph watch over the Baby and two women are ready to help, one with bare breast to suckle. A scene from the rural life in the countryside around Venice, but the angel at the top of the uncovered roof and the light coming from above recalls the transcendence of the event.
The shepherds by Savoldo (a. 1480 – 1548) artist born in Brescia but active in Venice, look at the scene from the openings of the hut in the moonlight, rather that in the classic gesture of adoration. Shy and secluded, they seem scarcely conscious of what it is happening. Joseph and Mary are in adoration, Mary is featured as a common woman, the flash of light in the sky is the only divine sign in the whole painting
The Adoration of the Shepherds painted by Bassano around the year 1560 is even more realistic. Bassano (1510 – 1592) is another artist of the Venetian Republic. In his painting a thoughtful Mary intent on looking after the Baby is surrounded by a small troop of farmers and animals. The realism of some details, e.g. the soles of the feet of the kneeling farmer, anticipates in some aspects the art of Caravaggio. The boy crouching in an equivocal pose in the right corner of the canvas is a detail that might seem even irreverent. Since the devotion of Bassano is known and can not be doubted, this element may be interpreted as a good natured mockery of the populace, that some years before had entered as a protagonist also in the comedies of the Ruzante, a playwright from Padua. The boy crouching is interested in stoking the ember he has in hands and maybe freeing the intestine, he can not understand the miracle happening behind him.
…. the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.…— Matthew 2:9-10
The Procession of the Magi
The source for the journey and the adoration of the Magi is the gospel of Matthew, but the traditional images have been enriched by many elements from several apocryphal sources of Eastern origin (Greek, Armenia, Arab). The birth of Jesus happens in a hut with the shepherds as unique spectators, but the procession of the Magi, the Kings who arrive from far away following the comet and bringing precious gifts is the occasion to stage a rich representation, with plenty of characters, horses and luxury clothes.
Gentile da Fabriano (1370 – 1427) describes the adoration of the Magi with an exotic and glitzy parade that gives him way to celebrate the richness of his purchaser (Palla Strozzi, one of the richest men in Florence) and his own mastery at the same time. The three Magi are represented in a pose already consolidated, with the first one kneeling without the crown and the second in the act of kneel and take off the crown. The magnificence of the procession contrasts with the simplicity of the small nativity in the dais of the panel, with Mary praying and Joseph sleeping in a night illuminated by the light of the angel.
The Adoration that Masaccio paints in the same period (1428) for the dais of the dismembered polyptych of Pisa is an accurate yet sober representation. The movement of the procession is given by the combination of the characters ahead and the horses behind, the oldest of the Magi, kneeling according to the tradition, creates a separation between the two groups: the Sacred Family and the Procession.
Also the representation of Sassetta (a painter of the Senese School) dating mid 1430 contrasts with the painting by Gentile da Fabriano for the poetry of his joyful procession that goes down on the snow in a winter landscape where the pink of the robes and the castles stands out.
Benozzo Gozzoli, a pupil of Fra Angelico, chooses the theme of the procession and the adoration of the Magi, that gives him the opportunity of a choral representation, for the frescoes of the private chapel of the Medici in their palace in via Larga (nowadays via Cavour). The procession winds in a gothic landscape with hunting scenes, the Magi have the appearance of the Medici, the figures in the procession are contemporary characters linked to the Medici.
Perugino transforms the procession in a kind of country party, with the large hut at the centre and the many characters spread in a gentle landscape dominated by the tones of the green.
The three characters in the famous painting by Giorgione, known as the Three Philosophers, have been interpreted also as the three Magi. They cover the three ages typical of the Magi and that one in the middle wears a turban, revealing his Eastern origin. But what are they doing with the sky maps and the compasses? It is simple: they are studying the position of the comet star.
After this short gallery that has shown us so many different approaches of the artists to this subject, it is worth to spend some more words about the Magi. They represent the pagan world, who is ready to welcome Jesus. while the Jewish people are not. They are trationally three, but Matthew does not say their number and he does not say they are kings. The number of three is deducted from the number of their gifts: gold. frankincense and myrrh, interpreted as the triple profession of faith in Jesus the King, God and Man. In the centuries, they become the representatives of the three human races and the three human ages: the old Baldassarre represents the Europe, the mature Melchior the Asia and the young Gaspar, dark-skinned, the Africa.
We see this in the two compositions by Andrea Mantegna. In the first one, dated 1461, the youngest of the Magi has dark skin and the Asian Melchior holds a turban in the hands. In the second Adoration (a. 1500), Mantegna leaves the tradition of the crib and the parade and presents a very original close-up of the faces of all the characters, emphasizing the colours and the precious gifts that the Magi hold in the hands.