With Christmas just around the corner, we turn towards artistic depictions of the event that started it all. The Nativity Story has repeatedly been represented by artists and in this feature we will explore a selection of these. This week we take a look at 14th and 15th century Europe.
Annunciation to the Shepherds, Taddeo Gaddi 1332-1338
This fresco decorates the Baroncelli Chapel of the Church of Santa Croce, Florence. Surrounded by other frescos, also painted by Taddeo Gaddi, it almost has to compete with the splendour of the other works to elevate its own. However, it does this by employing simplicity instead of gaudy opulence. Gaddi uses a sculptural landscape, inspired by the works of Giotto (1266-1337), the narratorial figures being elevated by the barren hills.
The light in this piece is relatively unique, being an experiment in night light, rare in 14th century Italy. The supernatural light that falls from the angel is realistically placed, reaching the outer canopy of the trees that crown the mortal world, indicating the all-reaching importance and beauty of this Christ-related event. Gaddi was known for his experiments with light, with the solar eclipses of the period being suggested as the reason for this fascination. An eclipse may have inspired the natural-unnatural ambiguity in the piece’s light. Interestingly, yet somewhat ironically, while studying an eclipse in 1339, Gaddi suffered serious eye damage.
Adoration of the Magi, Botticelli, 1475
Housed in the Uffuzi, Florence, the ‘Adoration of the Magi’, is a popular part of the nativity. Botticelli was commissioned to paint at least seven other Adoration scenes (other depictions can be seen in the National Gallery, London). Initially the scene seems to create a focus on the newly born Christ, being positioned just slightly above centre in the scene, with the assembly of people gathered mostly all turned toward Mary and the child. Above the child the unusual sourceless burst of light points downward indicating the holy nature of the baby.
However, this is not all that this painting does. It gives some illumination to contemporary Florentine society. Commissioned by Guasparre di Zanobi del Lama, a wealthy banker, it features portraits of Guasaparre himself, as well as several members of the influential Medici family, most of whom had died by the time of painting. So whilst having religious meaning and intentions to honour Christ, it also honours and compliments the mortal societal power that the Medici family possessed. Interestingly the figure on the far right, almost looking at the viewer, has been suggested as a self-portrait of Botticelli—positioning himself amongst the religiously and societally powerful.
Next time: El Greco, La Tour and Rubens