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The Nativity - the Birth of Jesus


Artists of the Italian Renaissance


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San Francesco and the Origin of Nativity Scenes





The idea of building Nativity Scenes at Christmas time each year was a relatively late arrival in the European Christian Church.  It is said that the practice was originated by Saint Francis in 1223 in a place called Greccio, which is just south of the Umbrian border, where live participants were involved in a recreation in a local cave.  The unlikely exactness of the date is due to San Bonaventura's "Life of Saint Francis", which was one of the most widely disseminated texts of the later middle ages.  Most of the sculptured stone scenes below predate the good San Francesco.


Today it is possible to walk the "Cammino di Francesco" (sic) - an 80 km circular hike around "the Sacred Valley" through beautiful south Umbrian countryside and medieval hamlets.  The route includes four of San Francesco's sanctuaries and is run from Rieti.  You can live the experience via DVD which can be bought via their website.


The fresco on the left is from Greccio and claims (but is unlikely) to be a contemporary portrait of Saint Francis.





Luke was the only gospel writer to mention the angel telling the shepherds in the field "keeping watch over their flock by night" about the birth

West (Royal) Portal of Chartres Cathedral (c1155).




The amazing Gloucestershire church of St Mary, Fairford, has a nearly complete (and recently restored) set of narrative old and new testament windows dating from the early 1500s, plus a large gallery of devils.  It was one of the standout discoveries of team Paradox's 2011 Autumn in England road trip. 


The window lights here depict the nativity (left) and the visit of the Magi.  Notice the socially excluded in the background ... on the left the shepherds (with crozier) and on the right a Magi's groom and horse - not to mention some sheep, being as how this was a "wool church".






This c1395 choir book nativity from the monastery of Santa Maria degli Angeli (Florence), can be found in the book

Choirs of Angels: Painting in Italian Choir Books, 1300-1500 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)




This combined nativity / magi scene was the poster for the 1997 Winter Spanish Market in Santa Fe (New Mexico)




This predella panel from the front side of Duccio's Maestà (c1310) is in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. 

The bulk of the work is where it belongs, and indeed this panel should be, in Siena.




From the tiny pilgrimage church of St-Jacques des Guérets in the Loir Valley (1100s - 1200s) - it rather looks like Mary asleep in the manger!




This “Spanish Nativity Scene” (with goat rather than ox) is part of the painted plaster ceiling of the Guild House of

the Spanish Merchants' Company in Barnstaple, North Devon.  It was originally completed on 9 July 1620.




Facade sculpture (mid 1100s) from Notre Dame la Grande, Poitiers




At the other extreme of church size, this is a roof boss from the nave ceiling of York Minster (Yorkshire), the largest of Britain's medieval cathedrals.




Fra Filippo Lippi paints a more upmarket Renaissance (mid 1400s) Nativity in the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta, Spoleto (Umbria).  Sadly Mary's cloak has lost its rich dark blue lapis colour, because for cost reasons the pigment would have been painted onto dry plaster in a thin layer, rather than mixed in with the plaster as a buon fresco.




Fra Filippo Lippi also brushed this unusual Josephless, Oxless, Assless Nativity for Cosimo de'Medici (The Elder).  St Bernard gets a bit part, though Lippi was not a Cistercian (in fact in the end he was not anything as he derobed to marry a nun - hence Phillipino Lippi).  It was hung in La Capella dei Magi in the Palazzo Medici in Florence, but in straightened Napoleonic times was sold to a Berlin based English trader, who later in his own straightened times "donated" it to the Prussian State.  At the end of WWII it was liberated near Berlin by American Soldiers, and sent to the US of A as a "war reparation" - despite the initial refusal of the American officers involved to obey  this order.  The mutineers cause triumphed in the end, and the painting was returned to Berlin.  Read the whole fascinating story in Wikipedia.  Renaissance art guru Professore Paradosso thinks that, like Piero's Sansepolcro Resurrection, at least some of the dark setting has resulted from the deterioration of eggy stuff used in the paint and the the original would have been a bit more cheerful.  Mary's beautiful face is in the same league as faces by Leonardo, Botticelli, Pinturicchio, Perugino, Ghirlandaio and Piero della Francesca.




A predella from the mid 1400s by Giovanni di Francesco (Louvre, Paris) - sorry about the photo quality but the little painting does have a special and unpretentious quality.




A nativity scene on a door pillar in the cloister door portal of Leon cathedral, on the Camino in N Spain.




Unmistakeably Angelico - Fra Angelico (first half of the 1400s) frescos cell 5 in the Convent of San Marco (Florence) and the ox 'n ass look meaningfully at each other.



St Maria im Kapitol (Cologne) - has a c1065 set of doors with painted bas-relief wooden panels.



Top L to R - The shepherds are told the good news; Nativity scene.

Bottoim L to R:  The Magi ask Herod the way; the Magi find Mary and Jesus.




Matthew's Magi plus gifts arrived a few days after the birth, but we could not resist including this beautiful capital by

Gislebertus (c1130) in the Chapter House of the Cathédrale St-Lazare, Autun (Burgundy).  That's Joseph hiding on the right!




source - "Stories in Stone"

The Nativity portrayed in a roof boss in Norwich Cathedral.




Nativity Rederos in the little church among the Melbury Bubb farm buildings in Somerset.




We have just been introduced to romanes dot com which contains lots of easily accessible and good photos of Romanesque art in France.

This beautiful example is a nativity in Cabestany, photo © Emmanuel Pierre.



Photo © Holly Hayes, Sacred Destinations


A Nativity and the Magi on a bronze door  made in 1180 by Bonanno Pisano for the Ranieri portal of the Pisa Duomo.




Matthew's Magi and Luke's shepherds join up in the Second Typological Window of Canterbury Cathedral (1100s)




Luke's shepherds and a surviving angel wing from the upper register of the facade of Notre Dame de la Couldre, Parthenay (Poitou) (1100s and destroyed in the revolution) - Louvre (Paris)




Back in Chartres, this panel in the Incarnation Window in the west facade is one of 28 scenes in this mid 1100s window, one of the four oldest in the cathedral.




Not quite a nativity but who cares - Masaccio died at the age of just 28 in 1428, and yet had already established himself as one of the most important Renaissance painters.  This beautiful little painting (normally in the Uffizi) is called the Casini Madonna, and we saw it at the man's 600th birthday party.




Back to the main theme - Perugino's take on the nativity in a predella painting now in the Art Institute of Chicago.  Even in this simple scene your respectable Renaissance artist had to demonstrate their grasp of doing perspective!




This fresco 1508-09 by Bernardo Pinturicchio is in Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome.




This fresco c1476 by Sandro Botticelli is in Santa Maria Novella in Florence.  That's San Giovanni Battista (St John the Baptist) doing something active in the left background.



This photo was taken from "Ghirlandaio" by Andreas Quermann - an out of print Könemann monograph which is still around second hand. 


Domenico Ghirlandaio's 1480s Nativity with himself as shepherd number one opposite a drop dead gorgeous Mary, and Joseph distracted by the clatter of the Magi and their retainers riding over to join in.  This is in the tourist free Sassetti Chapel in SSTrinita in Florence, where Ghirlandaio also included Lorenzo de'Medici (twice) and his family plus another self portrait amongst a series of Franciscan episodes.




Definitely not a nativity, but one of the Dom's favourites who also might even have been married to Jesus and might have fled to the south of France after the crucifixion, and .... read "the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail".  Santa Maria Maddalena by Perugino C1500 - exhibited in Perugia for the 2004 Perugino exhibition, but normally in the Palatine Gallery of the Palazzo Pitti in Florence.




And just so it does not get too serious, December Man enjoys a slap up dinner - Chartres Cathedral Zodiac Window (c1217), whilst.....




..... at Vézelay a more frugal December Man sizes up his chances with the lintel girl with rolled down top and big .... ears



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