And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory. John 1:14
Welcome to Day 1.
I know that for many Christians, Easter is the time of year to contemplate the sacrifice Christ made to save us, but, personally, the season of advent has always been more meaningful. The concept of the incarnation: God taking on flesh and coming as an infant with the purpose of sacrificing Himself to redeem his creation–it’s just more than I can put into words.
Yet, throughout the history of Christianity, artists have attempted to make visible the miracle of the nativity. Over the next 25 days we will be exploring 500 years of nativity art. I’ve chosen works that are significant within the history of art as well as personal favorites. Narrowing down my choices was difficult.
My hope is that contemplating these masterpieces will not only increase your knowledge of art but reawaken in you the wonder and beauty of the incarnation.
The first work we will be considering is a panel from a pulpit designed and sculpted by Nicola Pisano completed in 1260. A bit of background is necessary to put this work into it’s historical context. Pisano lived and worked in Pisa, Italy in the 13th century. He was both an architect and a sculptor.
Pisa is recognized for it’s outstanding medieval art, and the Piazza dei Miracoli (or Square of Miracles) is one of the most exceptional architectural complexes in the world. The complex consists of the Pisa Cathedral, the Pisa Baptistry, the Campanile (the bell tower commonly referred to as the Leaning Tower of Pisa), and the Camposanto Monumentale (or Monumental Cemetery).
Baptism was an important rite of passage in Medieval life. If you were a resident in Pisa, there was one Christian church, the Catholic church, and the building of a place of worship was often the primary focus of the entire community. There was little separation between church and civic concerns, and baptism was the point of entry into both the civic and spiritual community.
The grand Gothic cathedrals that were erected over hundreds of years were a source of civic pride, and often the primary source of work for artists. Work was begun on the Pisa cathedral in 1064 and on the Baptistry in 1153.
During the construction of the monumental edifices which took over 100 years, the original architects would pass away and others would have to continue the work. This change over often meant changes in the design to reflect current trends. In the Pisa Baptistry the original style was Romanesque–you can see the typical curved arches on the lower stories. As work continued, Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni were brought in to serve as both architects and sculptors. Nicola was responsible for the upper stories and dome of the Baptistry. He adjusted the plans to the newer Gothic style, evident in the peaked arches and more intricate details. The building embodies the transition between styles.
Nicola Pisano was also commissioned to create the pulpit for the baptistry. (In later years, his son, Giovanni, created the pulpit for the cathedral.) The Baptistry pulpit stands over 15 ft. high and is a hexagonal shape, rather than the typical rectangular shape. This decision was probably influenced by the round footprint of the building itself.
Below is a close up of the relief sculpture we will be focusing on. As you can see it has not survived the past 800 years without damage. Several arms and heads have been destroyed. I suppose with the numbers of wars fought, periods of iconoclastic cleansing, and natural disasters, we are fortunate to have so much intact.
This work is a relief sculpture made of marble. The term relief comes from the Latin word to rise. In relief sculpture the figures appear to be rising from the stone. They are still firmly attached to the stone behind them, not free-standing, but they are more than just etched into the stone. They have form and substance. Before I move to more serious matters can I just point out the goat in the bottom right who is scratching his head with his hoof. I just love that, such a realistic and fun detail in a serious work.
In the center, dominating the work, is the massive Virgin Mary reclining; Joseph is seated in the bottom left corner while two midwives give the infant Jesus his first bath. In the upper, left we see the annunciation (Gabriel bringing word to Mary that she will conceive and bear the Messiah). In the upper right, we have the Adoration of the Shepherds as they gather around the baby Jesus in his manger.
To the modern eye, much of this work is confusing, but to the medieval audience for whom it was sculpted, the work made perfect sense. It was not unusual for a painting to include multiple parts of a story in one work. Here we see the same thing in sculpture. It is perhaps a bit disorienting to to see Mary and Jesus more than once, but if you begin reading the work in the upper left and work in a U-shape, you have a good portion of the story.
The size of Mary can also seem a bit strange. If the central Mary were to stand she wouldn’t fit within the frame of the sculpture. In contrast, Joseph seems quite small and uninvolved sitting in the corner. This is due to heiratic scale, a device commonly used in various periods of art. Basically, size has nothing to do with realism, and everything to do with importance. In these stories Mary is the central figure, and the veneration of the Virgin Mary had increased significantly during this time period.
I’ve found that those, like me, who come from a reformed background, often react negatively to Mary’s elevated status in Catholicism and end up over-correcting in the opposite direction. We end up ignoring her to our detriment. Mary was chosen to be the mother of God, and contemplating her life and role is not something we should shy away from.
That said, as we can see clearly in this image, there are ideas at work that might be strange to those outside of Orthodox or Catholic strains of Christianity.
First, Mary is composed, regal, and somewhat unattached to Jesus for a woman who has just given birth. That is our 20th century need for realism surfacing. Paintings and sculptures in the Middle Ages were not just used to tell a story but to communicate doctrinal concepts and spiritual truths. Depending on where you fall in the Christian spectrum, these concepts will feel natural or foreign.
I’ll just proceed with the medieval view of Mary to clear the way of any confusion. Doctrine held that Jesus was conceived while Mary was still a virgin and that she remained a virgin until her death. Some even believed that she delivered in a miraculous way that left her hymen, and therefore her virginity, intact. There was also the belief that she delivered with no pain, hence her calm and serene expression post birth.
Her seeming detachment from Jesus is due to his being fully man and fully God. He is not an infant in the usual sense: He is her Lord. Again, the work is communicating far more than narrative details–it is giving us a glimpse into the theology of the incarnation.
Extra-Biblical sources included the story of mid-wives being present at the birth. One of these mid-wives doubted that Mary was to deliver the Messiah. This woman also had a withered hand. In some artwork as she bathes the infant Jesus her hand is miraculously restored. Hence, midwives are frequently included in the artwork of the nativity. Eventually, this element was eliminated in Western art but continued in the Eastern church.
Her reclining position in this work could be due to the custom of ‘lying in’ after a birth. All things to do with birth and death were considered to be sacred, and a number of rites prescribed how these events were handled. A lying in period secluded the mother and protected her from resuming work too soon after giving birth. After a month there was a ‘churching’ ceremony to reintroduce her back to society and to give thanks for her protection during birth. In our lives the death of a mother during childbirth is a rare occurrence, but that was not the case in the middle ages or ancient times. Care for the mother and her ritual purification were serious considerations.
In light of the doctrines surrounding Mary, Joseph was relegated to a benign caretaker by many. He is often portrayed as elderly, hence not a threat to Mary’s virginity, and sleeping, so as not to witness the birth. In contrast, animals, untouched by sin, are frequently pictured watching the goings on.
The representation of the Annunciation seems clear enough. Mary is shocked by the news, and then humbly accepts the angels’ words.
In the scene depicting the Adoration of the Shepherds, we also have the angels present. This can be referred to as the Annunciation to the Shepherds, but since the Shepherds have arrived at the manger, the scene is titled the Adoration of the Shepherds.
You may have noted that Jesus’ manger seems to resemble a coffin more than a manger. Allusions to the purpose of Jesus birth, that is, his death, are frequently present in nativity art. Sometimes an apple, to denote the first and second Adam, sometimes a cross, sometimes the swaddling clothes resembling funeral wrappings.
Beyond the spiritual meanings present in this sculpture, the work of the pulpit as a whole is significant in the timeline of art history. Up to this point, religious art adhered to a set of standards that were stylized. The way Biblical themes was presented in art had not changed for 1,000 years. In the North, France, sculptors had begun to move toward a more graceful realism. We now refer to this style as Gothic, and Pisano had been exposed to the style and would in fact, adopt the Gothic style to finish the exterior of the Baptistery. However, Pisano, absorbing Gothic sensibilities was going to leap forward, becoming a driving force in the coming Renaissance.
It is significant that the pulpit for the Baptistry was completed in the year 1260, and that is the date used by art historians to mark the beginning of the Renaissance. It’s been noted that changes in art are often gradual, but occasionally a work is seminal, marking in an instant a shift in development.
It is not as if artists in Italy were unfamiliar with classic sculpture and ‘rediscovered it’. In reality, they were surrounded by the ruins of Ancient Roman civilization. But, the development of art had moved them away from the classical works towards a focus on the truths of Christianity. Ancient Greece and Rome had valued the individual and celebrated the human as the pinnacle of creation. Their gods and goddesses were very human and were represented as larger more powerful versions of regular humans. Moving away from their pagan roots, the early church rejected much of the artistic culture that surrounded them.
Nicola Pisano, drawn by the relief sculptures on ancient Roman sarcophagi around him, incorporated not just the style but the content of Rome. In particular two sarcophagi provided models that he incorporated into the panels on the pulpit. Compare the woman, her clothing and headpiece on the left with the panel on the sarcophagus, and you can see the similarities. The Virgin Mary strongly resembles an Etruscan matron reclining in the Roman fashion. The clothing of the surrounding figures is Roman, not medieval.
The melding of Christianity and Classic themes is most vividly apparent in a sculpture just under the
nativity panel. This figure is the virtue, Fortitude. He is copied from the nude standing in front of the female figure on the sarcophagus, but that is not all. Around his shoulders is the lion cloak that signifies that this is Hercules of Greek mythology (Hercules slew the Nemean Lion and made his coat into a cloak with protective powers). Hercules is a natural representation of strength and fortitude, but equating the Greek half-god with a Christian virtue goes far beyond borrowing Roman art principles. For the first time we see a borrowing of classical concepts melding with Christian ones.
The Renaissance is identified by this very melding, a coming together of Classicism, Humanism, and Christianity into a new way of thinking, a new approach to science, and new ways of creating art. The Western world was on the brink of seismic shift, and the pulpit in the Baptistry in Pisa was the first tremor.
If you wish to read more works in this series you can follow this link to a list of the coming articles. As the post go live throughout the month of December you will be able to access them.
Thanks of reading, and I would love to hear your thoughts.
E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)
Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses
Professor William Koss, History of European Art Lecture series, Great Courses
Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)
Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)
National Gallery of Art website www.nga.gov
Metropolitan Museum of Art website www.metmuseum.org
The Getty Center www.getty.edu
And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.