The lack of literacy in pre-Renaissance and Renaissance times led the Catholic Church and wealthy merchants to commission a large number of painters to tell the story of the origins of Christianity—the Christmas story—in pictures. Artists and painters were in constant competition with each other to secure lucrative Church contracts, which consequently led to some of the most stunning masterpieces in Western art. Let’s look at a few of my favorite Old Master paintings which re-tell the Christmas story. They all share A Lasting Impression.
The Annunciation conveys the moment in which the archangel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would become the mother to the Son of God. Set in a simple columned loggia with a minimal landscape to the left, Fra Angelico creates a dramatic scene. Gabriel declaims to the Virgin, ‘the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee’ (Luke 1:35). She, demure, with a dove fluttering above her head in a burst of golden light, inclines towards him and responds, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word’ (Luke 1:38).
The two figures bow inward toward each other, each responding to the other, as they embark on a journey that will be the salvation of humankind. To underscore this theological connection, in the far distance, Angelico depicted the expulsion from Eden of Adam and Eve, whose sin made Christ’s salvation necessary. The small scenes Fra Angelico painted in translucent colors for the base of The Annunciation are each in themselves small hymns of praise to the Virgin.
This work was executed for a cloth merchant, Giovanni di Cola di Cecco, for the church of San Domenico in Cortona. Currently it is on display at the Prado in Madrid, Spain.
The Census at bethleham
The Census at Bethlehem (also known as The Numbering at Bethlehem) is by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, painted in 1566. It forms part of the collection held by the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. It is one of the first paintings in western art to feature a significant snow landscape and was painted in the aftermath of the winter of 1565, which was one of the harshest winters on record.
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered… So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.Luke 2:1-5
For Bruegel, the event is contemporary, taking place in his native Belgium. Mary and Joseph are just two more poor people trudging through the freezing air to queue for this ruthlessly imposed bureaucracy. The only thing that distinguishes them in the general misery and chaos is the proverbial donkey.
The Mystic NaTivity
Christ’s birth is celebrated as the glorious revelation of God on Earth in this unique and colorful painting by Sandro Botticelli. The Mystic Nativity depicts an infant Christ reaching up towards the Virgin Mary, oblivious of his visitors – the Three Kings on the left and the shepherds on the right. The golden dome of heaven has opened up and is circled by 12 angels holding olive branches, a symbol of peace, entwined with scrolls and hung with crowns. In the foreground, three pairs of angels and men embrace while holding scrolls which proclaim in Latin, “peace on earth to men of goodwill”. Among their feet, demons scuttle for shelter in the underworld through cracks in the rocks.
The Greek inscription at the top translates as: “This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, according to the eleventh [chapter] of Saint John, in the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the devil for three-and-a-half years; then he shall be bound in the twelfth [chapter] and we shall see [him buried] as in this picture”. Botticelli believed himself to be living during the Tribulation, possibly due to the upheavals in Europe at the time, and was predicting Christ’s Millennium as stated in Biblical text.
It has been suggested that this picture, the only surviving work signed by Botticelli, was painted for his own private devotions, or for someone close to him. It was not until a British art collector named William Young Ottley, who bought the painting in 1799 and returned with it to England, that Botticelli’s fame began to rise. You can view The Mystic Nativity at the National Gallery in London.
Around 1305, The Nativity is a fresco painted by Giotto in the Scrovegni Chapel, in Padua, as part of one of his finest and most important fresco cycles dedicated to the life of the Virgin Mary. While we can still see strong aspects of the Byzantine fresco style, Giotto did something entirely new: his figures are not stylized or elongated, they are solidly three-dimensional, have faces and gestures that are based on close observation, and are clothed not in swirling formalized drapery, but in garments that hang naturally and have form and weight. He also took bold steps in foreshortening and with having character face inwards, with their backs towards the observer creating the illusion of space.
In this Nativity, Giotto changed the story slightly to heighten the dramatic effect. Nowhere in the Scripture is there a reference to an ox and an ass. He uses the ox to stand for the New Testament and the ass for the Old, and together they symbolize the contrast between those who see and know and those who are blind to the new light that came with Christ. As the Virgin shifts on her bed she casts a long, sad look at the Infant. We may suppose that with her power of prescience, she is gazing into the future to the time when she must give Him up to fate. Giotto views the Nativity in an entirely new light – that of intense human drama.
Adoration of the Magi
In 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Albrecht Dürer’s magnificent painting, Adoration of the Magi, hung just inside the church a few feet away. Thirteen years earlier Frederick the Wise had commissioned Dürer to paint the masterpiece for the Schlosskirche altar. The painting remained in Wittenberg until 1604 when it was taken to Vienna and gifted to Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor.
In Albrecht Dürer’s exquisite Adoration of the Magi we become participants in the scriptural account giving opportunity to worship the Christ Child alongside the Wise Men from the East. Dürer’s style is so inviting. He deliberately draws you in and gives you a place so that you are an eye witness to this holy event.
The Uffizi in Florence, recently restored and now displays the Adoration of the Magi in the Gallery after a lengthy absence.
The Sistine Madonna
Commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1513, The Sistine Madonna is one of the world’s most recognizable paintings. Capturing the public’s imagination ever since its creation, the two cherubs at the bottom of the altarpiece who sit as observers looking up at the Madonna and the Christ child as they descend from a heavenly space. This painting was said to have been painted for the Epiphany, which usually includes the three kings of the East but instead we see Mary and Christ hovering on clouds.
Aside from the two cherubs, there are four other heavenly beings within Raphael’s large alter painting. On the viewer’s left, there is Martyr Pope Sixtus II. He looks up at the Holy Mother and child and points out to an invisible audience as if to say, “look at those who come to pay worship to you and the Holy child”, his hand has the appearance of almost reaching out of the frame of the painting. On the Madonna and baby Jesus’ right side is the patron saint of artillery gunners, lighting and all those who risk their lives in working – Saint Barbara. Unlike the cherubs and Pope Sixtus II, she is not looking at the Holy Mother but down at the cherubs.
The Sistine Madonna hangs in the Old Masters Gallery in the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany. The painting has been there since 1752/54, except for the years 1945-55 when it was in the possession of the Soviet Union. Thankfully for Dresden, the Soviets repatriated it fairly quickly as a gesture of goodwill.