This Christmas, I’m looking at that most traditional of Christian religious paintings, the Nativity, and how it has developed. Today I show some examples of its early progression from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance, then tomorrow I look at some innovative directions in which it has been taken since.
Paintings of the Nativity are closely related to the ‘scenes’ of models or performers which became popular after their introduction by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223. Images of the Adoration of the Magi started to appear on sarcophagi in the catacombs of Rome before the conversion of Emperor Constantine, but pure Nativities were less frequent until the widespread adoption of Nativity Scenes in churches throughout Europe during the thirteenth century. Key pictorial elements include the swaddled infant Jesus, an ox and an ass, and the figures of Mary and Joseph, although they weren’t always present in the earliest depictions.
In its purest form, the Nativity is distinct from adorations, of either the shepherds or the Magi, although there are often attendant angels, and maybe the occasional shepherd.
Margarito d’Arezzo’s The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Scenes of the Nativity and the Lives of the Saints (c 1263-4) includes a Nativity scene at the top left which meets those requirements.
It’s probably Duccio’s Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel from 1308-11 which forms the prototype for centuries of subsequent paintings, with its humble shed set into rock, the Holy Family, and the attendant animals (ox, ass, sheep) and humans (shepherds, angels). This was installed at the high altar in the Duomo (cathedral) in Siena on 30 June 1311, and remained there for nearly two centuries, only being removed in 1506. Each panel has its own apposite Latin inscription.
This fourteenth century fresco showing the Nativity of Jesus in Kakopetria, Cyprus, puts a series of frames showing individual events in the full story, around a central image of the Nativity. This avoids repetition of that central image for the adoration of the Magi, for example, which is shown at the three o’clock position, so uses the format to help tell the story.
Inevitably, when oil painting arrived in the Northern Renaissance, the Nativity was one of the first themes, here painted by Robert Campin some time between 1415-30. This is also an early example in which the scene has moved out from the cave which had become popular in southern Europe, to a shed typical of local farms. The sparse background of earlier Nativities has been replaced with a landscape typical of the coast of northern Europe.
The Renaissance then brought a succession of masterly religious paintings which aimed to be so realistic that they deceived the eye, including Petrus Christus’ The Nativity from about 1445-50. It still contains the essential elements, though: the infant Jesus is naked, rather than swaddled, resting on the ground in front of the Virgin Mary. To the left are the ox and ass, and on the right is a balding and bearded Joseph with his walking stick.
By 1500, Sandro Botticelli had already painted several conventional nativity scenes. Two frescoes which have survived are quite typical: The Nativity (c 1473-5) has been transferred to canvas and can now be seen in the Columbia Museum of Art, and that in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella (1476-7) is one of the recommended sites in Florence, Italy.
These follow the convention: the infant Christ, required to be at the centre of course, with Joseph the carpenter on one side, and the Virgin Mary on the other. They are within a semi-derelict cattle-shed, with a background of an ox and an ass, and there are attendant shepherds. Representatives of the angelic host are optional. Botticelli does a fine job in both cases, but these don’t have the greatness of his Primavera or The Birth of Venus.
Fra Bartolomeo’s Nativity from 1504-07 uses a landscape based on a drawing made in front of the motif for its background. The artist has populated the middle distance to add interest, and in the foreground is a simple nativity scene based on his fine tondo Adoration of the Child from 1499. He has also added decoration of angels at the right, and in the heavens above.