The Nativity

It would be easy to write off this off as just another greeting-card version of the familiar Bible story. But look again.

Nativity, c. 1420, Robert Campin, courtesy Musée des Beaux-Arts de Dijon

For more than a century, a body of work was identified as being by the so-called Master of Flemalle. These paintings are now generally attributed to the Belgian painter Robert Campin. These attributions are controversial because the artist didn’t sign or date his output. However, the works in question all bear the hallmarks of Campin’s workshop: keen observation, oil paint rather than egg tempera, and complex perspective.

It would be easy to write off his Nativity, 1420, as just another greeting-card version of the familiar Bible story. But look carefully at the corner post emerging from the collapsing wattle-and-daub wall of the stable. “This is an exact portrait of a specific piece of battered, reused timber,” wrote Martin Gayford. “Every knothole, insect tunnel, split, roughly carpentered joint and variation in the grain of the wood is represented with close-focus precision. Beneath, the footing of the wall has been studied with the same fascination, especially a single, knobbly flint.” From there, let your eyes travel to the perfectly realized landscape in the background.

The Annunciation, 1420-25, Robert Campin, courtesy of Museo del Prado

That wooden post, rather than the crowded cast of characters, is the centerpiece of this extraordinary painting. Why was it so important? It’s a symbol of the cross, but it’s much more than that. Renaissance painters were interested in realism because they recognized that Christianity is, ultimately, grounded in tangible reality. This Nativity was meant to teach something more than just the bare-bones Bible story.

According to Christian doctrine we humans are triune beings, made of body, soul and spirit. We’re supposed to be spirit-led, but our faith never denies the importance of our physical crust. Creation started with a physical world, and moved on to a physical man, made from the dust of the Earth. Only at the end did God breathe the spirit of life into that thing he’d made ‘in his own image.’

The two surviving wings of The Werl Altarpiece, 1438, Robert Campin, courtesy of Museo del Prado

So, ours is a physical world operating on physical laws, which is perhaps why science and industry found such fertile ground in the Christian world. But periodically the natural order of things is upset by miracles. This is not just a New Testament thing; see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.

For modern man, miracles are a tough idea to swallow. If you reject the possibility of miracles in general, then the Nativity makes no sense. But that’s a modern rationalist viewpoint, certainly not shared by most of mankind through history.

The Marriage of the Virgin, 1420s, Robert Campin, courtesy of Museo del Prado

Of course, God can do anything he wants to. It wasn’t ‘necessary’ for Jesus to enter the world through a virgin birth, or to be in human form at all. But there’s no reason he couldn’t, either, and Matthew and Luke both said it happened that way.

As important as his paternity is, the Bible narratives actually emphasize his mother. The fact that he was born of woman was the key to Christ’s humanity, and this—that he came down to earth and shared a literal, physical body—is what made his death and resurrection so important. He really was one of us.

Look at the angels at the top. They’re in a different scale, and they have wings. They’re truly otherworldly, because they’re not like us. But that ugly, mewling baby in the foreground? He’s just an ordinary helpless newborn. As he entered the world like mankind, so we have the promise we’ll leave the world like him. We will share the Resurrection. That is the true miracle of the Nativity, and the message of this remarkable painting.

Six Days of Advent: The Mystical Nativity

The Nativity, 1912, Sir Stanley Spencer. Joseph is off to the right, doing something to the chestnut tree.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Raphael, Rubens, Tiepolo, Correggio, and the other great painters who’ve painted exquisite Nativities. But there is something arresting about the mystical nativity, where reality is somehow subsumed in spiritual fervor.
Sir Stanley Spencer painted the Nativity, top, as a student at Slade in 1912. He later explained:
The couple occupy the centre of the picture, Joseph who is to the extreme right doing something to the chestnut tree and Mary who stands by the manger…  Joseph is only related to Mary in this picture by some sacramental ordinance… This relationship has always interested me and in those early works I contemplated a lot of those unbearable relationships between men and women.  
The embracing couple represents physical love in contrast to Mary and Joseph’s spiritual connection. That goes with Spencer’s amazingly messed-up attitudes toward women and sex. Spencer’s strict separation between the spiritual and the physical is the neo-Platonic trap into which many of the mystic painters fall. The whole point of the Incarnation is that God becomes man, sharing our joys, sorrows, and, yes, the messy realities of our births and deaths.

Nativity, 1310, Giotto. Joseph seems to be sleeping.

Giotto is generally considered the first Renaissance painter, but he was firmly in touch with his medieval self. That gave him a leg up for mysticism. The pre-Renaissance world was able to see in a non-literal way that is almost completely lost to us. This allows the infant John the Baptist to sit at the bottom of the frame while Jesus is being born, and the almost-disembodied angels that arch across the top of the painting like a Byzantine architrave.

The Nativity, 1492, Domenico Ghirlandaio. You have to zoom in to see her laser-beam prayer. What is it with poor Joseph? Asleep again.

Domenico Ghirlandaio painted the Virgin Mary sending laser beams of prayer down to the infant Jesus while a heavenly choir sings above. The columns and one-point perspective point us that much farther along the Renaissance.  All that gold leaf you’re seeing in the Italian paintings of this time is supposed to remind you of the untarnished nature of the story.

The Mystical Nativity, 1500-01, Sandro Botticelli. Believe it or not, Joseph is sleeping.

Sandro Botticelli described the Nativity as the moment when heaven and earth touch. He was painting at the apogee of the Italian Renaissance, which accounts for the more concrete nature of his visionary angels—he couldn’t throttle back on the realism like Giotto or Ghirlandaio . In his later years, Botticelli fell under the influence of a fanatical Florentine preacher, Savonarola. There is something almost manic in the earthly action in this painting that points to the spiritual oppression of the time.
The Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele, 1434-36, Jan van Eyck. Joseph doesn’t even show up for this one.
By the fifteenth century, the idea of the Virgin Mary as intercessor for the sinful had gained traction. Jan van Eyck’s The Madonna with Canon van der Paele shows the donor beseeching the Virgin Mary and Sts. Donatian and George. The intense realism and the fine architectural drawing contrast with the unreality of these four figures sharing a common space.
The Nativity, c. 1810, William Blake. At least Joseph is actually present.
William Blake painted the above panel, on copper, concurrently with his Europe, a Prophecy, from which comes his wonderful Ancient of Days painting. At about the same time, he also painted a series of watercolors illustrating Milton’s “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity”:
It was the winter wild,
While the Heav’n-born child,
All meanly wrapt in the rude manger lies…
But Blake, as usual, strayed off into his neo-Platonic world-view. Here the soul of Jesus leaps fully formed toward the soul of John the Baptist. No encumbrances such as the messy reality of childbirth or our imprisonment in our fleshly bodies gets in the way.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!