The vast majority of European painting is Christian, and much depicts the events described in the New Testament. This poses the European painter the problem of painting traditional scenes in a way that viewers will see as acceptably faithful to the biblical tradition, but which are also somehow ‘creative’ and novel.
This is most demanding when painting the birth of Jesus Christ – the nativity and adoration. This article looks at four unusual accounts, by some of the most visionary painters: Hieronymus Bosch, Sandro Botticelli, and William Blake.
The linked stories of the birth of Christ in a shed at Bethlehem, and the subsequent adoration of the infant by three wise men, kings or Magi “from the east”, are among the most popular and enduring among paintings in the Christian canon. The outlines given in the Gospels of Luke, chapter 2, and Matthew, chapter 2, have conventionally become elaborated.
Three wise men had seen a new star – possibly a comet or an unusually bright planet – which they believed would lead them to the birth of a great prophet. They travelled by the guidance of that star, to arrive at Bethlehem. There they found the newborn Christ with Mary his mother, paid homage to him in the shed in which the holy family was lodging, and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Hieronymus Bosch: The Adoration of the Magi (c 1475, 1495)
Hieronymus Bosch was one of the most original and visionary artists. Two paintings securely attributed to him show the adoration scene, and both contain passages which reflect his particular genius. They are both believed to have been created early during his career, the first being one of his earliest paintings to have survived.
The figures here are largely conventional, and beautifully painted: the Virgin Mary, in her traditional blue robes, with the infant Jesus on her lap, an ageing Joseph, the three wise men, shepherds, and an ox. The setting may seem strange now, but it was common for European artists to show local buildings and countryside, so this ruined castle is in keeping with that accepted incongruity, which was probably unrecognised by almost all those who saw it at the time.
In the distance is a rich rolling coastal landscape, with shepherds tending their flocks, scattered trees and small woods, a walled town with a tower, and a large castle at the mouth of a river.
Look closer, though, and there are also signs of a military conflict, with three small armies on the move, each bearing flags. On the bank just below the bridge at the right, crows pick at the skeleton of a dead animal. Further in the distance, on the bank opposite the large castle, a body hangs from a gibbet. These are not drawn from any biblical or even apocryphal account of the nativity or adoration.
Bosch’s other surviving painting of the adoration takes the form of a triptych, again set in his local countryside, and in buildings of local style.
Its three panels form a continuous view of the local Brabant countryside, with its low rolling hills, and a city in the distance: this may be based on Antwerp (the donor’s city), or possibly ‘s-Hertogenbosch, where the artist was born and worked. The two wings show the donor and his wife, accompanied by the saints who vouch for their places in heaven, Saint Peter and Saint Agnes. The donor has been identified as the wealthy Antwerp burgher Peeter Scheyfve, a very successful weaver, whose arms are shown at the left.
The adoration is concentrated in the centre panel, which also contains its most unusual details.
In the foreground is what appears to be a fairly conventional and detailed depiction of the adoration of the Magi. The Virgin Mary is sat under the tumbledown eaves beside a small cattleshed or stable known in this area as hoekboerderij. The infant Christ is seated on her lap, steadied by her left hand.
The senior of the Magi, an elderly man, has removed his crown, which is to the right on the ground, and prays to the mother and child on his knees. His gift is an elaborate gold table decoration showing Abraham about to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Behind him a second has also removed his headgear and holds his gift of myrrh on a silver platter. To the left is the third, a bare-headed African king wearing immaculate white robes, and bearing his gift of frankincense inside a sphere, on top of which is a phoenix bird; he has a child attendant behind him.
More unusually, a fourth king, identified as an anti-Christ, is inside the shed, wearing an ornate crown, and clutching a helmet with his left hand. His appearance is bizarre because his face and neck are sunburnt, but the rest of his skin is deathly pale. He is partly undressed, and has an old wound on his right lower leg. Several other figures are seen behind this fourth king, and an ass is visible through an opening in the wall of the shed.
To the right and above this traditional scene are more peculiar events. A group of shepherds are engaged in climbing a tree behind and to the right of the shed. Two, a man and a woman clutching a set of bagpipes, are leaning over the thatched roof to view the scene below, and three others are below them. One of Bosch’s signature owls is just visible too: at the same level as the face of the upper person on the roof, just by the break in the wooden frame of the gable end of the shed.
The background to this panel shows low, rolling hills with small woods and open grassland. In the middle distance is a windmill, behind which are unusual turreted buildings, a moat or river, and the city. This countryside contains sporadic people, and no less than three small armies, two of which appear to be approaching one another, from the left and right sides of this central panel; their headgear suggests that they come from outside northern Europe. The third group can be seen back towards the foot of the windmill.
Although less overtly strange than his later masterpiece The Garden of Earthly Delights (c 1495-1505), there is something deeply disquieting about these two versions of the adoration. All was clearly not well in Bosch’s countryside.
Sandro Botticelli: Mystic Nativity (1500)
Towards the end of the fifteenth century, there was a growing feeling of apocalypse in northern Italy. The area had been at war with the French since 1494, when ten thousand French troops invaded Florence. The Renaissance was a turbulent time in terms of ideas, Florence was growing rapidly, and remained firmly under the control of a few elite families.
In 1490, the radical preacher Savonarola arrived in Florence, calling on repentance from vice and corruption which he saw as being rife at the time. He preached to huge crowds in Florence Cathedral, proclaiming his vision of the city as the New Jerusalem, and citing chapters from the Book of Revelation with its disturbing succession of apocalyptic scenes.
The established church reacted, charged him with heresy (he had already been excommunicated in 1497), tortured him to confess that his visions were false, then hung him and burnt his corpse, along with two of his leading followers. Repression ensued, which fuelled feelings of imminent apocalypse.
In 1500, Botticelli was feeling his age. His great successes with the elite families were long past, and his workshop largely idle. From that came his painting of the nativity with a most curious combination of the traditional set alongside elements which today look quite bizarre: his Mystic Nativity, now in the National Gallery in London.
At the very top is an inscription in Greek, which means: “This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, according to the eleventh [chapter] of Saint John, in the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the devil for three-and-a-half years; then he shall be bound in the twelfth [chapter] and we shall see [him buried] as in this picture.” This refers to the chapters from Revelation which Savonarola had used in his preaching.
Below that are twelve angels, dressed in the colours associated with faith, hope, and charity, who are circling a golden opening in the heavens. The angels fly/dance in a circle, clutching olive branches, at the bottom of which are crowns associated with the kingship of Christ. The ribbon-like objects are in fact scrolls, which examination by infra-red reflectography has shown to bear inscriptions meaning “peace on earth to men of good will”.
Below this is the traditional cattle-shed with the holy parents and infant, standard animals, shepherds, and further angels. These are largely based on a drawing made by Botticelli in 1495.
At the foot of the nativity scene is another passage which appears strange. Three angels are seen embracing men, possibly a reference to Savonarola and his accompanying martyrs. Behind them, among the path and rocks, are seven small devils, some of them already impaled on their own weapons, who are fleeing back to the underworld.
This is a strange blend of a traditional nativity with apocalyptic elements more appropriate to a scene of the Last Judgement, all with veiled references to contemporary events.
It is not known who commissioned the painting, but it was probably not long before it was hidden away and forgotten. It was rediscovered by William Young Ottley when the French were occupying Italy again, at the end of the eighteenth century. He brought it to England, where it was eventually purchased by the National Gallery in London, where it continues to baffle and to mystify.
William Blake: The Nativity (1799-1800)
Almost exactly three centuries later, another artistic genius, William Blake, was busy painting a series of fifty works showing scenes from the Bible for his loyal patron, Thomas Butts. Oddly using glue tempera rather than oil paints, these have not survived well, and most have lost the richness of their original colours and detail. Among that series is a surviving depiction of the nativity of Christ, and another of the adoration of the wise men.
The Nativity is unique and quite extraordinary. On the left, Joseph supports the Virgin Mary, who appears to have fainted. Jesus has somehow sprung from her womb, and hovers – arms outstretched as if ready for crucifixion – in mid-air. On the right, Mary’s cousin Elisabeth greets the infant, with her own son, John the Baptist, on her lap. Blake makes clear the difference in age between Elisabeth and Mary.
Although that is most unconventional, Blake still includes, at the right, the traditional ox and ass, and a cross or star burns bright through the window at the top.
Blake’s version of the Adoration of the Kings is far more conventional and has retained more of its original beauty, with the three wise men presenting their gifts to Jesus and his parents. At the left, outside, shepherds are tending to their flocks of sheep beneath a stylised star, and at the right are the ox and ass.
As far as I can tell, no one has yet provided adequate explanations for Bosch’s armies on the march, Botticelli’s elaborate scenes, or Blake’s springing Jesus. They fascinate, we speculate, but ultimately we resort to describing them just as being ‘mystical’.
Matthijs Ilsink, Jos Koldeweij et al. (2016) pp 216-223 and 198-215 in Hieronymus Bosch, Painter and Draughtsman: Catalogue Raisonné, Yale UP and Mercatorfonds. ISBN 978 0 300 22014 8.
Bindman D (1977) Blake as an Artist, Phaidon Press. ISBN 0 7148 1637 X.
Butlin, M (1981) The Paintings and Drawings of William Blake, 2 vols, Yale UP. ISBN 978 0 300 02550 7.