The fourteenth-century mystic Saint Bridget of Sweden recounted Christ's birth after experiencing a vision. The "great and ineffable light" she described as emanating from the Child is the most compelling feature of this picture. The portrayal of this divine splendor allowed painters to convey the mystical aura of the event and to experiment with dramatic lighting effects. Drawings and numerous paintings of the subject suggest that a lost work by Hugo van der Goes was the source of the composition. A variation on the theme, produced by a different workshop, also belongs to the Museum (Robert Lehman Collection).
This nighttime scene is based on an account by Saint Bridget of Sweden, who claimed to have seen a holy vision of the Nativity during a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1372. The details which correlate with Bridget’s account are the young Virgin with flowing hair, the naked Christ Child, and the singing angels. The most important element of Bridget’s vision is the "great and ineffable light" which emanates from the Child to illuminate his surroundings, entirely eclipsing the light of the candle held by Joseph. This effect of illumination allowed painters to both indicate the holiness of the event as well as to experiment with dramatic lighting effects.
Friedrich Winkler (1964) believed that there was a lost example of a night Nativity by Hugo van der Goes, of which versions by Gerard David and Michel Sittow (both in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna) still exist. Max Friedländer (1916) suggested that Jan Joest of Kalkar painted the prototype for the composition of the MMA painting, which was a popular type in the early sixteenth century in Antwerp. Very little is known of Jan Joest, but our painting and several others are considered to be in his style, based on comparison to his polyptych for the Stadtpfarrkirche Sankt Nicolai in Kalkar, Germany. This artist may be the same Jan Joest found in records of the painters’ guild of Haarlem. The Virgin’s delicate features and the frizzy-haired angels in the Museum's panel are similar to the Virgin and Gabriel in the Kalkar altarpiece, but the faces of Joseph, the shepherds and some of the angels differ enough to indicate that it was more likely painted by a close follower of Joest (Ainsworth 1998). Of special note are the angel next to the Virgin and the shepherd at the center embracing a column who appear to show the facial abnormalities of Down’s Syndrome, and may be an early representation of this phenomenon (Levitas and Reid 2003 and Cornwell 2009). The chorus of six angels with a banderole is an addition to the standard composition which adds a joyful element to the scene. There are two drawings of the same subject that share similarities with our painting, namely one by Joest in the State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg, and the other by Dirk Vellert in the Szépmüvézeti Múzeum, Budapest. There are also at least ten paintings by the workshop of the Master of Frankfurt, including one in the MMA (1975.1.116). These paintings are regarded as copies after the same prototype upon which this work is based. Examination with infrared reflectography has revealed animated underdrawing, including some slight adjustments made in the hands and faces of some of the angelic figures.
Richard von Kaufmann, Berlin (until 1917; sale, Paul Cassirer, Berlin, December 4 and following days, 1917, no. 110, as by "Jan Joest van Calcar?," to Haniel); F. Haniel, Düsseldorf (1917–after 1964); Mrs. Lieven (until 1967; [apparently with Herbert Ritter, Munich, acting as agent] sale, Christie's, London, June 23, 1967, no. 73, as by the Master of Frankfurt, to Linsky); Jack and Belle Linsky, New York (1967–his d. 1980); The Jack and Belle Linsky Foundation (1980–82)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 22, 1998–February 21, 1999, no. 59.
THIS WORK MAY NOT BE LENT, BY TERMS OF ITS ACQUISITION BY THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART.
Max J. Friedländer. Von Eyck bis Bruegel: Studien zur Geschichte der Niederländischen Malerei. Berlin, 1916, pp. 139–40, mentions this picture in the von Kaufmann collection, noting that it repeats the essential elements of a painting from the same collection by Barthel Bruyn; is convinced that these pictures are based on a lost work of Jan Joest; states that the same lost composition was copied by the Master of Frankfurt in a panel in the Museum at Valenciennes (Musée des Beaux-Arts).
Max J. Friedländer. "Der Meister von Frankfurt." Jahrbuch ber Königlich Preuszischen Kunstsammlungen 38 (1917), p. 142.
Max J. Friedländer. "Die niederländischen, französischen und deutschen Gemälde." Die Sammlung Richard von Kaufmann, Berlin. Cassirer and Helbing, Berlin. Vol. 2, December 4, 1917, pp. 215–17, no. 110, ill., catalogues it as "Jan Joest van Calcar (?)".
Ludwig von Baldass. "Mabuses 'Heilige Nacht,' eine freie Kopie nach Hugo van der Goes." Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien 35 (1920–21), p. 46.
Jakob Rosenberg inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 18, Leipzig, 1925, p. 377.
Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 9, Joos van Cleve, Jan Provost, Joachim Patenier. Berlin, 1931, pp. 17–18, 126, no. 4a, pl. 14, notes that there are five other paintings with similar compositions and infers that all six pictures must depend on a lost original by Jan Joest, the present picture being the most faithful surviving version.
G. J. Hoogewerff. De noord-nederlandsche schilderkunst. Vol. 2, The Hague, 1937, pp. 447–48, observes that attribution to Jan Joest must remain uncertain.
Max J. Friedländer. "Eine Zeichnung von Jan Joest von Kalkar." Oud-Holland 72 (1940), pp. 162, 165, fig. 5, as "Jan Joest von Kalkar, Kopie?"; relates it to a drawing (fig. 1) in the Hermitage, Leningrad, previously ascribed to Barthel Bruyn, but which he finds closer to works ascribed to Jan Joest.
Alfred Stange. Deutsche Malerei der Gotik. Vol. 6, Nordwestdeutschland in der Zeit von 1450 bis 1515. Munich, 1954, p. 67, pl. 126, as by Jan Joest; implies a date of about 1515.
Max J. Friedländer. Early Netherlandish Painting: From van Eyck to Bruegel. Ed. F. Grossmann. English ed. [first ed. 1916]. New York, 1956, pp. 108–9.
Friedrich Winkler. Das Werk des Hugo van der Goes. Berlin, 1964, p. 153, suggests that this composition derives from a lost nocturnal Nativity by Hugo van der Goes.
Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 9, part 1, Joos van Cleve, Jan Provost, Joachim Patenier. New York, 1972, pp. 15, 52, no. 4a, pl. 2.
Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 9, part 2, Joos van Cleve, Jan Provost, Joachim Patenier. New York, 1973, pp. 89–90, 113, no. 148, pl. 148.
Stephen H. Goddard. "The Master of Frankfurt and his Shop." PhD diss., University of Iowa, 1983, pp. 146–47, 343, fig. 42, calls an attribution to Jan Joest "hard to accept" and attributes this picture and the example of this composition in the Lehman collection [MMA 1975.1.116] to the "Watervliet painter," an assistant within Joest's workshop who produced the Deposition triptych in the church of our Lady, Watervliet, Belgium.
Guy C. Bauman inThe Jack and Belle Linsky Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1984, pp. 67–70, no. 22, observes that of the eight known versions of this composition, the Linsky Nativity is unique for its inclusion of the chorus of six angels with a banderole, "evidently an invention of the artist"; concludes that our panel is "the work of an independent artist from the orbit of Jan Joest active about 1514, probably in Antwerp".
Stephen H. Goddard. "Brocade Patterns in the Shop of the Master of Frankfurt: An Accessory to Stylistic Analysis." Art Bulletin 67 (September 1985), pp. 409, 416, fig. 11 (detail), attributes it to the workshop of the Master of Frankfurt on the basis of the brocade pattern which he regards as "shop specific," and on stylistic grounds.
Maryan W. Ainsworth. "A Meeting of Sacred and Secular Worlds." From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1998, pp. 220, 244–46, no. 59, ill. (color), dates it about 1515 and ascribes it to a follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar; notes that there are at least ten paintings and two drawings that repeat this basic composition.
Martha Wolff inThe Robert Lehman Collection. Vol. 2, Fifteenth- to Eighteenth-Century European Paintings. New York, 1998, pp. 98–99, finds only the most tenuous connection to the Master of Frankfurt in this picture, commenting on the use of different facial types and a more transparent paint application; attributes the Lehman composition to the Workshop of the Master of Frankfurt.
Andrew S. Levitas and Cheryl S. Reid. "An Angel with Down Syndrome in a Sixteenth Century Flemish Nativity Painting." American Journal of Medical Genetics 116 (2003), pp. 399–405, figs. 1–3 (overall and details), propose that two of the figures depicted (the angel next to Mary and an earthly admirer in the center behind the angels) show facial abnormalities associated with Down syndrome and mental retardation; suggest that the painting could be one of the earliest European representations of the syndrome.
Tim Cornwell. "Challenging the Attitudes to Down's Syndrome through Art." Scotsman.com. March 19, 2009 [http://living.scotsman.com/tim-cornwell/Challenging-the-attitudes-to-Down39s.5086722.jp].
Susan Urbach. Early Netherlandish Paintings. London, 2015, vol. 2, pp. 122, 124, under no. 37.