Sunday, December 15, 2019

Nativity: Familiar Details

If you've seen one European painting of Jesus' nativity (Luke 2:1-14), you may be inclined to believe you've seen them all. But what we understand as the "usual" arrangement for those nativity paintings has an interesting history. It has roots in Sweden.

In the tradition of icons, Mary is often shown reclining, resting after her labor and the birth of Jesus. At the beginning of the fourteenth century in Italy, the usual pose for the infant Jesus was on the lap of his mother Mary who is seated on a throne. Magi, saints, donors, and music-making angels visited the enthroned madonna, who is dressed in a red garment topped by a dark blue cloak. The Maesta Altarpiece (top left) was commissioned in 1308 by the city of Siena, Italy. Maesta means majesty, and this piece is considered among the most sublime examples of the type.

On the other side of Europe in Sweden, a widow named Bridget (Birgitta) founded a religious order after one of the many visions she was given in her lifetime. She left Sweden for Rome in 1349 and made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1371-1372. While in Jerusalem she traveled to Bethlehem and received a vision of Jesus' nativity. She dictated the images to a scribe, and her vision became a strong influence on how the nativity was depicted in art.

Niccolo di Tommaso's Saint Bridget's Vision of the Nativity, the center panel of an triptych altarpiece (bottom left) is inspired by Bridget's vision. The artist and the mystic probably met in Naples, where both had ties and where Bridget was twice a resident and Niccolo had a patron and several commissions. Bridget returned from Jerusalem in 1372 and died in Naples in 1373.

Bridget's vision yielded the details of a cave with an ox and a donkey, a single candle on the wall, a golden-haired Mary wearing a white garment, Joseph who is an old man, Jesus lying directly on the ground, and more. Mary's actions are also new. As an enthroned madonna, Mary held her child on her lap, facing the viewer. In Bridget's vision Mary delivered the baby while on her knees. The "Adoration of the Christ Child" became a type after the diffusion of Bridget's vision. Mary no longer looks out at the viewer. Instead she looks at her son, who is so newborn that she hasn't even held him yet.

Niccolo has given credit to the woman whose vision has inspired this work. Bridget is shown kneeling at the bottom right of the center panel. She does not wear the Brigittine order's distinctive fabric crown with five red tips.

So many of those details are things we imagine have always been part of depictions of Jesus' birth. Surprisingly, always is only six or seven centuries.

Duccio di Buoninsegna. Maesta Altarpiece. 1308-1311. Siena: Cathedral Museo dell'Opera.
Niccolo di Tommaso. Saint Bridget's Vision of the Nativity (center panel). 1375-76. Philadelphia Museum of Art
For the text of Bridget's vision, click here.

For other thoughts on Christmas, click here and here.
For a view of Christmas Eve in Mexico, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

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