Friday, December 28, 2007

The Nativity: Piero della Francesca

Painting of the Month at the National Gallery UK is Piero della Francesca's Nativity. Here are the notes:

This scene shows Mary kneeling in adoration before a newly-born Christ who is laid on her cloak. Five angels sing welcoming his birth - two of them play lutes. Beside them a donkey appears to bray, while an Ox peers down solemnly at Christ.

Two shepherds are present (their faces have lost detail, possibly through over-zealous cleaning by previous owners). One of the shepherds points heavenwards, clutching his staff like a sceptre. Joseph is shown in deep contemplation, with his leg crossed over his knee.

Each person, angel and animal shows a different attitude of reverence towards the infant Christ. Even the magpie, well-known in Piero's native Tuscany for its constant chatter, seems changed and looks to be struck silent.

Piero has added other touches from his native region - Bethlehem itself has a distinctly Tuscan feel. The flat land on top of the hill where they stand evokes Tuscany, as does the winding valley to the left. Meanwhile the skyline on the right, dominated by the basilica, could almost be the outskirts of Piero's home town Boro San Sepolchro.

The influences here come from further a field than Tuscany. The painting shows the impact of Northern European painting. Piero painted with tempera early in his career, but for later works like this one he began working in oil. Along with the use of brown under-painting for the figures, this shows a familiarity with Netherlandish and Flemish work. This is reinforced by the slim figure of Christ, who lacks the square muscularity of contemporary depictions from Italy, and is more reminiscent of paintings by artists like Hugo van der Goes.

Piero has also experimented with perspective. It is the only one of his works that shows a building askew from the rest of the composition: this is the simple shed, which reminds the viewer of Christ's humble beginnings.


Pastor Pam Szurek said...

In this painting, Joseph is sitting on an open rock, in an odd shape. Is it a foreshadowing of the tomb? Is the water flask or vessel underneath it a symbol of the rock that closed the tomb? Or am I reading into the painting something that isn't there?

Deirdre said...

In Byzantine icons of the Nativity, Joseph is sometimes seen seated off in a corner in conversation with a shepherd next to a few sheep and water. The sheep stand still and the water doesn't flow. In the Protoevangelium of James (a noncanonical text) at the birth of Jesus time stands still: water, sheep, birds. Is it possible there's a faint echo of this in Piero's depiction of Joseph's contemplation and his odd seat?

BTW, note the three tiny birds (chaffinches?) in the front left of the painting. The females are looking towards Mary while the male looks away. Perhaps he mirrors Joseph who also looks away from the mother and baby. Could the males be in contemplation or "on guard?"

Pastor Pam Szurek said...

it seems that in the Nativity, the painter used a lot of details in ways he didn't in, say, the Flagellation, the Resurrection, or the Baptism. The birds, for instance, and their stasis. In the others, the human figures gave the story. It is interesting in the Baptism, it is the females again who imply interest, while the males are either walking away from the water, or the one is removing clothing preparing for baptism.
I hadn't seen some of these paintings. Thanks for drawing my attention to them.

Don said...

I only recently saw a print of this painting of the pregnant Madonna that he painted. Evidently it was scandalous for its day to show Mary in pregnancy.

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