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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

The Birth and Infancy of Christ in Italian Painting

As told in the Gospels, Christ’s life on earth began with an extraordinary birth and concluded with a horrible death followed by resurrection. Between these two poles intervene a dense array of episodes, among them miracles, dialogues, and sermons that contain the essential teachings of Christianity. Rich as this material is, Italian piety and Italian art of the late Middle Ages and after tended to stress the Incarnation narrative, the sequence of events surrounding his birth, and the events of the Passion, the sufferings of his final week on earth. Numerous versions of these scenes were produced from the thirteenth to the seventeenth century, and yet none is exactly like any other. The similarities that link the several examples display the continuity of tradition in Italian painting, while the variations that make each one unique show the vitality of innovation within this tradition.

The Annunciation, the first episode in the Incarnation narrative, illustrates well the potential for variety within a single subject. The story is very simple: the angel Gabriel greets Mary with the news that she will bear the son of God, and Mary responds. In formal terms, the Annunciation is simply a meeting between two figures, and yet almost every detail varies from one painted version to another. Botticelli, for example, set the scene in a stately classicizing interior with the Virgin and the angel kneeling to each other in a serenely balanced arrangement (1975.1.74). Very different is a Mannerist picture attributed to Parmigianino, in which the angel hovers over Mary in a strangely intimate dark chamber (1982.319). The relationship of the figures changes yet again in a Baroque example by Luca Giordano, where the twisting motion of the angel in flight, the sudden gesture of the Virgin, and the otherworldly lighting create a sense of sacred drama (1973.311.2).

Pictures of the Nativity, the first night of Christ’s life on earth, tend to emphasize the fragility of the infant and the wonder felt by those who first witnessed his coming. The child is usually centrally positioned, and the Virgin is shown in loving contemplation. An ox and an ass, two animals mentioned in Isaiah’s prophecy about the Messiah (Isaiah 1:3), usually appear near the baby, and Saint Joseph, Mary’s husband, is included but often placed to one side so as to not make him appear the father. A picture may show Mary and Joseph alone with the Christ Child (24.22), but more often the holy family is joined by the shepherds who were the first to worship him on earth. Fourteenth-century pictures of the subject typically include elements inherited from the Byzantine tradition, for instance, a boxlike crib for the baby and a cavelike shelter for the holy family (25.120.288). Later pictures alter the setting and character of the shepherds in remarkable ways. Andrea Mantegna presents the Christ Child lying in the folds of his mother’s garments and emphasizes the poverty and humility of the shepherds approaching with torn clothes, bare feet, coarse faces, and awestruck expressions (32.130.2). The Ferrarese painter L’Ortolano conceived the scene quite differently (30.95.296): within a grand-looking classical structure open to an idyllic landscape, the shepherds kneel with the grace of polished courtiers.

Among Christ’s early visitors were also three Magi, wise men from the East who gained royal stature in art. The biblical texts suggest that their visit occurred several days after Christ was born, but most paintings present the event in a stable no different from the setting of the Nativity. It became traditional to make the Magi of different ages and sometimes of different ethnicities, despite the silence of the Gospels on these matters. A panel by Giotto (11.126.1) combines the Adoration of the Shepherds with the Adoration of the Magi in a scene remarkable for its humanity and insight: the shepherds listen fearfully to the angels’ message and the animals gaze up at the Christ Child while Joseph gestures in amazement, Mary watches with her head propped on her arm, two kings wait with seemly humility, and the old king on his knees, with his crown cast on the ground, cradles the Child in his arms. Giotto’s emphasis on the human reactions of the figures may be linked to trends in contemporary piety and in particular to the teaching of Saint Francis, who staged a famous reenactment of the Nativity and encouraged meditation on the event.

Patrons and artists loved the Adoration of the Magi for the exoticism and splendor of the subject, but theologians also favored it for its emphasis on the majesty of Christ even over the wealthy and powerful. In Giovanni di Paolo’s beautiful panel (1982.60.4), the fashionable costumes of the Magi, trimmed with fur and gold, contrast with the simple and timeless attire of Mary and Joseph, and yet the kings’ reverence for the holy family is evident as the youngest Magus clasps Joseph’s hand and the eldest one kneels to kiss the Christ Child’s foot. The foreign extraction and arduous journey of the kings were imagined by Sassetta in a fragment from the background of a picture of the Magi, where the wise men travel through a hilly landscape with their entourage and animals (43.98.1).

Iconic pictures of the Christ Child with his mother are very common in Italian art (2004.442), but other scenes from his childhood are considerably rarer. A small panel by Cosimo Tura (49.7.17) depicts the Flight into Egypt, when Joseph, Mary, and the infant Jesus fled for safety from Herod’s massacre of young children thanks to an angel’s warning. The strange pose of the sleeping child, with his hand to his side and his legs tightly crossed, anticipates the end of his earthly life and the state of his corpse after crucifixion.