For a biography of Gerard David, see “Gerard David (born about 1455, died 1523).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.The Triptych and its Original Appearance:
As is the case with numerous early Netherlandish paintings in The Met’s collection, this triptych has not survived intact. The wings of the triptych were sawn in half vertically, separating the exterior paintings, a forest landscape (Mauritshuis, The Hague; see fig. 1 above), from the interior ones of donors and saints. It is unusual, however, to have surviving documentary evidence that provides the likely reasons for this barbarous act. The intact triptych passed in 1920 from the Urrutia family, where it had long been in Navarra, Spain, to Joseph Duveen, the New York and Paris art dealer. Duveen, in turn, sold it to New York collector Jules S. Bache in 1928. The very next year, Bache lost his fortune in the Wall Street crash of 1929, unable to pay his debts to Duveen. In an article of 1920, August Mayer published that the outside wings of this triptych, depicting a forest without human beings, were painted at a much later date (Mayer 1920). When Bache lent the triptych to the Antwerp exhibition "Wereldten-toonstelling voor Koloniën, Zeevaart en Oud-Vlaamsche Kunst" (June–September 1930), the same verdict was pronounced: the outside wings could not have been painted by David. Between 1930 and 1932, probably as a result of both Bache’s disastrous financial condition and the negative views about the attribution of the outside wings, they apparently were sawn off and returned to Duveen. The outer wings were sold to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 1932 as by Gerard David. Bache eventually recovered his fortune and repaid his debts to Duveen. Regrettably, David’s innovative approach to landscape painting was at that time not yet recognized, and the intended unity of the triptych was lost.Meditational Themes:
In 1997, the Mauritshuis held an exhibition entitled: "Art on Wings: Celebrating the Reunification of a Triptych by Gerard David" (March 1–June 22, 1997), which was the first time that the long-separated panels were reunited. This provided an opportunity for the re-examination of the representation of landscape on the exterior wings and the reconsideration of the meaning of the ensemble. There have been multiple theories about the landscape introduction to the Nativity scene (see Cleven 1990; Härting 1995; Buijsen 1997; Ainsworth 1998; and Bakker 2004 and 2011). In terms of the iconography alone, and not the representation of nature itself (for which, see Ainsworth 1998, pp. 207–55), Buijsen made a convincing interpretation. The exterior wings show an ox and two asses within the landscape, symbolizing humankind before the advent of Christ. Buijsen (1997) convincingly explains this by referring to the writings of Saint Jerome (ca. 347–420). In his commentary about Isaiah and the presence of the ox and the ass, Jerome recalls the verses of the prophet (Isaiah 32:20): “Blessed are ye that sow beside all waters, that send forth thither the feet of the ox and the ass.” As Buijsen notes, this comes at the end of a prophesy about establishing the kingdom of peace and righteousness, and the repentance of all before God’s rule can hold true (Isaiah 32:9–20). It relates that troubled times will end when the Messiah comes and justice and righteousness will flourish (Buijsen 1997, pp. 32–33). Further details of the text appear carefully depicted in the forest scene as a forerunner to the coming of the Savior, who blissfully appears as the triptych is opened.
The profound solemnity of the interior of this triptych sets it apart from other examples of this theme in The Met’s collection. The presentation here is multivalent, allowing viewers—then and now—to engage on many different levels. Immediately apparent is that the well-known biblical narrative found in Luke 2:1–20 is illustrated in abundant detail. According to tradition, the setting is familiar: the dilapidated palace of the Old Testament King David, ancestor of Christ. It became the refuge for the family, as there was no place for them at the inn (Luke 2:7). In the background there are “shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them,” and announced the birth of the Christ Child (Luke 2:8–9). Then entering from the upper left of the central panel: “And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of heavenly hosts, praising God and saying, 'Glory to God in the Highest, and Peace on Earth, good will toward men . . . '" (Luke 2:13–14).
As was clearly intended by the artist, the longer the viewer would contemplate the scene, the more he or she could meditate on individual details. These details are what enhance the somber mood of the work, as they focus on the purpose of Christ’s Incarnation, that is, his eventual sacrifice on the cross to atone for the sins of humankind. The Christ Child lies on top of a manger that to contemporary viewers was a visual metaphor for the altar, thus connecting the Incarnation with Transubstantiation. For early modern Christians, the Eucharistic wafer was believed to transform into the body of Christ at the celebration of Holy Communion. Below the manger is a sheaf of wheat, symbolic of Christ as “the living bread which came down from heaven” (John 6:51). In this context of Christ’s sacrifice, the swaddling clothes, tightly rolled in the wicker basket, may also signify the winding cloth used to wrap the dead body of Christ after his Crucifixion. The ox and the ass are not discussed in Luke’s rendition of the Nativity, but their mention goes back to early Christian writers, namely to the third-century Origenes. He suggested that the ox and the ass were the fulfillment of the prophesy of Isaiah (1:3): “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.” Gregory of Nyssa in the fourth century further related the ox to the Jewish law and the ass to idolatry, and recognized that the Christ Child between them would liberate both groups from their yokes of bondage. Directly above the ox and the ass is a dandelion plant, growing out of the stone wall. The dandelion symbolizes the bitter herbs at the Last Supper and is a flower that blooms at Easter time.
The Virgin kneels before the Christ Child, her hands joined in prayer, and a young Joseph crosses his arms over his heart in humility, “in order to express the prayer and the desire to acquire grace by the virtue and by the merits of the passion of Christ and of the cross.” Unlike most depictions of Joseph (for example, in 32.100.40a
), he is here represented as a young man, according to the writings of Jean Gerson (the Parisian scholar and chancellor of the University of Paris who became dean of Sint Donaaskerk in Bruges after 1397). Gerson believed that Joseph was only about thirty-six at Christ’s birth, as otherwise he would not have been able to fool the devil into thinking he was the true father of the Child, nor would he have mustered the strength to take such a long journey with the family on their Flight into Egypt. This latter point is underscored by Joseph’s attire. He is dressed as a traveler in short robe, long hose, soft shoes, and a cloak. His walking stick rests prominently on the sheaf of wheat in the foreground.
To the left and right of the central panel are the kneeling donors presented by their patron saints, Saint Jerome in cardinal’s attire with his lion resting nearby, and Saint Leonard, a deacon holding a devotional book and shackles. The donors, slightly larger in scale because they are positioned closer to the viewer, are also accompanied by attributes, a pig for the man in reference to Saint Anthony Abbot, and a crown, sword, and wheel for the woman as Saint Catherine. These attributes were thought to be later additions to the painting, making the two donors into saints, perhaps when the triptych changed hands and the identity of the donors became unknown to a subsequent owner (Campbell 1981, Bauman 1986). However, technical examination of these features of the painting under the microscope and with x-radiography indicate that they were planned from the beginning (see forthcoming Technical Notes). The pig was painted over the coat of the man, and there are plants originally painted over the lower part of the pig, indicating that both pig and plants were part of the intended design. As for Saint Catherine, x-radiography shows reserve areas left for the sword and the wheel (fig. 2), thus proving that these features were intended from the start to accompany the figure. Catherine’s crown was added at a final paint stage.
Unfortunately, we do not know the exact identities of the male and female donor figures, but they must have been an Anthony and a Catherine who wished to be identified in the guise of their name saints by being depicted with their attributes. What may seem to modern viewers as blasphemous was instead an indication of great personal devotion, that is, of the donors’ wish to identify closely with these holy figures. Such a depiction, called a portrait historié,
originated in antiquity and is found in early Christian art as well. A number of examples in early Netherlandish painting from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries show that it was an established practice (see also 17.190.17
, a copy of Jan Gossart's Virgin and Child as Anna van Bergen and Hendrik, her son). However, there soon developed arguments against the convention by theologians and polemicists such as John Calvin and Erasmus, and this led later on to heated controversies prompting the phenomenon mostly to die out.The Attribution and date:
When this triptych was in the collection of the Urrutia family in Navarre, Spain, it was attributed to Hans Memling. August Mayer (1919–20) was the first to recognize it as a work by Gerard David from his “second period,” a proposal accepted by all scholars since then (see Refs.). He also perceptively realized the influence of Hugo van der Goes from a presumably lost Nativity. However, he also set the course for the mistaken notion that the landscape depiction on the outside wings was painted at a much later time (discussed above).
Throughout his career, David was aware of the achievements of his contemporaries, such as those of Dieric Bouts, Hans Memling, and Hugo van der Goes, and he looked to them for inspiration. But he aimed to make improvements on their works, transforming familiar compositions and making them into his own. David may have known Hugo van der Goes’s Nativity (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin; fig. 3), or a similar now-lost work, which presented a model in part for the central features of David’s version. But David completely transformed Hugo’s composition in terms of space, number of figures present, and attention to landscape and nature.
Regarding the date of the triptych, most scholars assign it to David’s late phase, around 1510–15 (see Refs.). The great assurance with which the exceptionally lifelike figures are placed within a masterfully conceived space was achieved by David starting in the first decade of the sixteenth century. In this group are several very ambitious works commissioned by both local and foreign patrons: the Cervara Altarpiece
for Vincenzo Sauli in 1506 (Palazzo Bianco, Genoa; Musée du Louvre, Paris; and The Met 50.145.9ab
); the Baptism of Christ Triptych
(Groeningemuseum, Bruges) for Jan de Trompes, produced between 1502 and 1508; and the Virgin Among Virgins
for the Convent of Sion in 1509 (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Rouen).
The Baptism Triptych
(fig. 4) marks David’s first great achievement in the representation of landscape as a major feature of a painting in which an extended narrative naturally takes place (Ainsworth 1998, pp. 222–35). Venturing in the opposite direction from Joachim Patinir’s world-view landscapes (see The Met's 36.14a–c
of about 1512–15), David portrayed the intimacy of a quiet, meditative environment in his Rest on the Flight into Egypt
) around 1512–15. He established the forest as a realm for humans, and most of all for the viewer as he or she accompanies the Holy Family, empathizing with them as they endure the hardships of their long journey. The Met’s Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard
of around 1510–15 takes this development even further with its forest scene, formerly on the exterior wings of the triptych. In a revolutionary new concept, the viewer is invited to enter the forest landscape with its locally familiar oak, silver walnut, and beech trees, and to meditate on the presence of God in nature and the relevant biblical texts. This introduces the contemplative mood of the triptych and, with its increased naturalism, enhances the viewer’s participation in the devotional or sacred content as the triptych is opened to reveal the miracle of Christ’s birth.
Because of the transfer of The Met’s paintings from wood to canvas, when even portions of the ground preparation were lost, details of David’s working procedures at the underdrawing stage cannot be rediscovered (see further discussion in forthcoming Technical Notes). However, the outside wings with the Forest Scene
are still on their wood supports, and infrared reflectography and x-radiography reveal David’s many revisions toward the final solution of this innovative landscape depiction (Ainsworth 1998, pp. 237–45).
Maryan W. Ainsworth 2020
 Everett Fahy, “How the Pictures Got Here,” in Ainsworth and Christiansen 1998, p. 71.
 See Exh. Antwerp 1930, p. 36.
 Jaarsverslag Rijksmuseum
(Annual Report) 1932, p. 8; see also Bruijnen 1997, pp. 13, 22 n. 22.
 As in Buijsen 1997, p. 38 n. 30: Corpus Christianorum. Series Latina LXXIII, S. Hieronymi Presbyteri Opera. Pars I. Opera Exegetica 2. Commentariorum in Esaiam. Libr I-XI
, Turnhout, 1963, pp. 8–9. For the popularity of Jerome in the Renaissance, see E. F. Rice, Saint Jerome in the Renaissance
, Baltimore, 1985, pp. 116–36.
 See The Met 32.100.40a
and the online Catalogue Entry.
 The Meditations on the Life of Christ
also mentions that at the announcement of the birth of Christ, all of the angels flew down to Earth to adore Him. See I. Ragusa and I. B. Green, eds., Meditations on the Life of Christ, an Illustrated Manuscript of the Fourteenth Century
, Princeton, 1961, chapter VII, and p. 38.
 See P. Browe, Die Eucharistischen Wunder des Mittelalters
, Breslau, 1938, pp. 100–11; Barbara Lane, “’Ecce panis angelorum:’ the manger as altar in Hugo’s Berlin Nativity,” Art Bulletin
57 (1975), pp. 476–86, and p. 113 n. 1.
 J. Ziegler, “Ochs und Esel an der Krippe. Biblisch-patristische Erwägungen zu Is. 1,3 und Hab. 3,2 (LXX)," Münchener Theologische Zeitschrift
3 (1952), p. 391, as in Buijsen 1997, p. 32.
 The densely rayed halo of the Virgin is uncommon to Netherlandish painting and may have been added when the painting entered a Spanish collection.
 This is as discussed by Denis the Carthusian in his treatise on the mass, Exposito Missae
; see Anne Hedeman, “Rogier van der Weyden’s Escorial Crucifixion and Carthusian Devotional Practices,” in R. Ousterhout and L. Brubaker, eds., The Sacred Image East and West
, Urbana, 1995, p. 194.
 See I. N. Maegawa, “La Doctrine de Jean Gerson sur Saint Joseph,” Cahiers de Josephologie
7 (1959), pp. 181–94; and I. N. Maegawa, “La Doctrine de Jean Gerson sur Saint Joseph,” Cahiers de Josephologie
8 (1960), pp. 9–39, 251–92.
 Ibid., 1960, p. 35.
 I am grateful to Lisa Monnas, who discussed with me the possible origin of the extraordinary textile of the woman’s dress (email to the author 3/28/20). However, the sumptuous attire of the woman offers no helpful hints to her specific identity.
 Rudie van Leeuwen, “The portrait historié in religious context and its condemnation,” in Katlijne Van der Stighelen, Hannelore Manus, Bert Watteeuw, eds., Pokerfaced: Flemish and Dutch Baroque Faces Unveiled
, Turnhout, 2011, pp. 109–24.
 On David’s development of landscape painting, see Ainsworth 1998, pp. 207–55.
 A copy of the outside wings of the Nativity Triptych, attributed to Ambrosius Benson, added figures of the Holy Family to produce a Rest on the Flight into Egypt
on a single panel (ca. 1525; private collection, Genoa).