Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds

Giorgione's Allendale Nativity

Article on Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherds

Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds

Welcome to day 16

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 

Giorgio da Castelfranco, or Giorgione which means ‘big George.’  was born in 1477 and died in an outbreak of the plague in 1510. He was an Italian Renaissance painter from Venice, who in his short life left works that were critical to the development of Venetian painting.

He studied in the Billini workshop and was a contemporary of Titian. His paintings have been compared to lyrical poetry, but what makes them unforgettable is that there is always an enigmatic theme to them. He painted hauntingly beautiful landscapes, sensuous nudes, and transcendent light.

The painting we are examining today was used for personal devotion. In earlier centuries Christian Art focused on the Crucifixion and the events of Passion Week. During the 15th and 16th century there was a movement toward more works that focused on the Incarnation, or God coming in the flesh, which is one of the central focuses of this work.

Article on Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherd

Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherd, or the Allendale Nativity. 1505-1510 National Gallery of Art. Washington D.C.

This painting is of the Adoration of the Shepherds, sometimes referred to as the Allendale Nativity, referencing a former owner. The composition is very unusual. Traditionally, the Holy Family is the center of any work they are in. In this painting, the Shepherds are the center and nearly 1/2 of the painting is the landscape in the background. By moving the shepherds to the center, turning their backs toward us, and leaving an open space in the foreground we, as the viewer are invited to join in this circle, to take our place in worshiping the Christ Child.

If you, like me, are not a part of the Catholic stream of Christianity, the imagery found in artwork surrounding the nativity might seem strange, or go unnoticed altogether. I am going to try, rather clumsily, to explain an image of the Virgin Mary which might at first exposure seem odd, but I find beautiful. Mary is portrayed as the altar, and Christ the Eucharist. This imagery requires some unpacking.

At the risk of being very basic, I’m going to explain a bit about the Christian practice of communion so that the ideas, imagery, and language is not confusing to those outside of the Christian world.

Before Christ’s crucifixion He and His disciples were having a last Passover meal. (More imagery there, but we will skip the Passover imagery for now.) During this last supper he took a loaf of bread and broke it, giving some to each of his disciples. He told them, This is my body, which is for you. (a reference to his upcoming death) eat it in remembrance of Me. In the same way he took the cup (full of wine) and said, This is My blood of the covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of many. Whenever you eat this bread or drink from this cup remember Me.

This meal developed into the practice of Communion. Churches remember Christ by eating bread and wine to remember Christ sacrifice. This is a very surface explanation and leaves out so much. Each branch of Christianity celebrates Communion in a different way, with different beliefs underlying the way it is taken.

As Renaissance Italy was Catholic, it is their beliefs that are pertinent to this discussion. Communion is called the Eucharist (from a Greek word meaning to give thanks). The Priests consecrate bread and wine before it is to be given to believers. The blood and wine is transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. Once it has been consecrated the bread and wine is handled in very specific ways. To understand more about Catholic Doctrine on the Eucharist I’d suggest reading here.

So seeing the Christ Child as the Eucharist is not a stretch. Now the imagery in the painting gets complicated here, so stay with me.

The Jesus who is present in the Eucharist is the same Jesus that Mary carried in her body. Mary is our model, she nourished the Christ within her body and then gave birth, gave Him to the world. She was faithful and obedient from the moment of the Annunciation through Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection, and her faithfulness was for our blessing and salvation. In the same way, when a believer is given Holy Communion they take Christ into themselves and then are to bring Christ to a world that is waiting to be reborn. Mary is our model in this. She models obedience, faith, and worship.

The altar in a Catholic Church is the table at which the elements of communion, the bread (body) and wine (blood) are consecrated. Mary’s body is where Christ took on flesh, blood and body, and from His birth his life was ‘consecrated’ which means set apart for a specific purpose, to die for the sins of mankind.

Detail from Giogrione’s Adoration of the Shepherds

The baby Jesus lies naked on the ground, a reminder of the Incarnation, God coming in the flesh. Christ, while naked, is lying on a white stretch of fabric. If you observe carefully you will see that this is part of Mary’s cloak that has been spread under the baby’s body.

This is where the idea of Mary as altar is brought together with Christ in this painting. The altars in Catholic churches were covered with a white cloth, here Mary’s cloak, lined in white is spread under Christ, who embodies the Holy Eucharist. Altar tables were made of some sort of stone, and here we have stony ground. This imagery was used by Bellini, who Giorgione studied under, and would be used by Titian, a Venetian painter who worked for several years with Giorgione. In this image we have the Incarnation and the Crucifixion and Resurrection portrayed.

Article about Giorgione and the Adoration of the Shepherd

Detail from Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherd

There are five figures in the foreground, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the two shepherds. Mary and Joseph are dressed in rich colors. Mary is in her traditional red with blue cloak. Joseph is dressed in an unusually fine orange/gold drape. This was actually a new pigment that had been made in Vienna. The color is gorgeous, and it has been suggested that the choice for Joseph was to highlight that Jesus is of the line of King David.

The Holy Family is kneeling in front of the opening of a cave, which serves as a stable, and as a reminder of Christ’s sepulcher. None of the figures has a halo, however Joseph’s gray hair and Mary’s white head covering nearly shine against the dark of the cave. Both are kneeling before the Christ child, heads bowed, hands brought together in a traditional attitude of prayer.


Article about Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherd

Detail from Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherd

The Shepherds, in contrast to Mary and Joseph, are dressed in simple, even ragged clothes. Interestingly, the colors of Mary’s clothing are echoed by the standing shepherd uniting the composition. The kneeling shepherd is in the more rustic green and browns, which have a certain richness in hue even if they are not the clothes of a rich man. His hands are mirroring the Virgin’s hands. It’s as if he is watching Mary worship, and is learning from her, assuming her attitude. If we follow that thought Joseph’s hands are also in a similar position, perhaps coming together in that moment. The standing shepherd appears to be in the process of going down on his knee.

The figures form a solid rectangle in the foreground. You might ask, where are the angels that are generally present in such works. To me, this is the oddest part. There are severely foreshortened angels up hovering in the air above the figures. It is almost as if they are blurry lights, but upon close examination there are faces hovering up there. It’s just odd.

Article about Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherd

Detail from Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherd

It has been suggested that this painting is meant to represent the first Mass. A similar argument has been made about Hugo Van Goes Nativity. This is certainly possible, although that this was the intent is inconclusive .

Whether this is a Mass or not it is evident that we are not meant to think we are viewing the actual event of the Adoration, but a spiritual moment in time. We are moved beyond the physical world, even while the material world is presented in exacting detail.

In the left foreground we see a tree stump with a laurel bush in front of it. In Isaiah 11:1 we are told that There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Jesse is the father of King David and the branch that will come up is the promised Messiah. Laurel signifies joy, triumph, and resurrection.

The landscape on the left of the painting is rendered in the beautiful colors that Venetian painting is known for. A babbling stream, a couple of people working, buildings and mountains stretching off into the distance all illuminated by a late afternoon sun.

Landscape by Giorgione in the Adoration of the Shepherd

The shading in this painting is done skillfully with color. Often darker shades of a color are achieved by adding a bit of black or dark blue until you reached deep shadow. Here, instead of black for shadow we have many different colors represented in a very naturalistic way. The atmospheric perspective (showing distance by change of color to deeper blues) and the clouds are a beautiful, rich shade of blue that seems to diffuse the light over the entire painting.

I hope you are enjoying these Advent posts, if you would like to read more in the series you can find them here.



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

Metropolitan Museum of Art website

The Getty Center

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.

Albrecht Durer and woodcuts of the Nativity

Exploring the Nativity in Durer's prints

Article on Albrecht Durer's woodcuts

Advent in Art, focus on Durer

Welcome to day 15.

Albrecht Durer is my favorite artist of all time, hands down, no one else comes close. I really love his woodcuts and engravings. Communicating complexity with nothing but lines, it astounds the viewer. That he so realistically represents space, emotion, perspective, shading…with nothing but black and white lines is beyond impressive.

Printmaking was just coming into it’s own when Durer purchased a press. He was the first artist to do so. He saw in the medium the opportunity to have a consistent income. Painters, even great ones, had to wait for the next commission to come in, and money worries were the norm. Durer recognized the potential in printmaking. He could sell a piece of work, over and over again, and at an affordable price. This could mean a consistent base income, a luxury most artists didn’t have.

When one sets out to learn about Durer, without fail, along with his incredible artistic talent, the other quality that is mentioned is his understanding of business. This was a true Renaissance man. He was an artist, the greatest artist that Germany had ever seen, and extremely famous and valued in his own time. But with that he was a skilled businessman, a mathematician, an art theorist and student of nature. Insatiably curious and quick to absorb new ideas and see their potential, he didn’t just set up to make prints, he created true art, taking printmaking beyond what had been conceived of.

Article on Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer, Meloncholia

At that time woodcuts had been around awhile, and many were good, very good, but Durer elevated the craft to the same level as painting. His work, Meloncholia, is haunting and mysterious, his rhinoceros is one of the most reproduced images in art.

With painting artists generally waited for a commission, and Durer received many commissions. He did altarpieces and massive paintings, but he also created woodcuts and engravings of things that interested him, and then sold them. He didn’t need to wait for a commission to make a woodcut. His wife handled a lot of the details of the print business, going out to the weekend markets to sell the prints. We know that his print of the rhinoceros sold several thousand prints in his lifetime, and there is still a strong market for the piece today.

Doing so many woodcuts, and being famous, there were challenges. Other artists could easily get a print, make a woodcut from it, then begin selling them. Many people did just that. Copyrights were not a thing. Durer actually went to court with one competitor and the judgement was that there was nothing wrong with copying the picture, but on the copies, his signature could not be duplicated. Of course, knowing that one had purchased a Durer was a selling point, but even without his mark on them, they were amazing prints. Most copies couldn’t match the work that his workshop did, so copies were not identical to the original prints.

Albrecht Durer’s Logo

Durer had a more modern view of the artist. He saw himself, and others like him, as more than just craftsmen. In a time when most Northern artist didn’t sign their work, he worked his signature into his pieces in very visible ways. This was not a small signature on a frame. He’d designed what we would now call a logo, and displayed it prominently. The logo was his initials.

I’m going to show you three different prints that Durer created of the nativity. Two are woodcuts and one is an engraving. Engravings were drawn, and then engraved by the artist, and there was a limited number of copies that could be made before the engraving was done.

Woodcuts are a bit different. First they are a relief print, meaning the black lines you see is what is NOT cut away. The raised portion is the part that will be inked. So, as you look at these prints realize that the white areas are what was carved out. This is the opposite of the engraving process. Also, the print will be in reverse once printed.

The artist, in this case Durer, would make the very detailed drawing. He would not be doing the carvings. The workshop would have craftsmen who were highly skilled in carving and in the use of the tools needed. The wood would be very carefully chosen, as grains ect. can make carving challenging. The carving would be a collaborative effort between the artist and the carver.

I would strongly suggest enlarging these as you are looking at them to appreciate how the shading, perspective, and depth was achieved, Albrecht became an expert at cross-hatching. That is where lines run horizontally and vertically making hatch marks. Depending on how close together they are, they can create differences in shading.

The one element that we have not discussed so far in our series is the element of the dilapidated building. In the North in particular, artists frequently painted the nativity scene in a building that appears to be the ruins of a house, falling down and in serious disrepair. This is meant to show that Christ was coming into a fallen, sinful world that is decaying and in ruins. His coming will redeem not only men, but creation itself.

Article on Durer and woodcuts.

Albrecht Durer, The Nativity.  1502-1504 Woodcut on laid paper. 11 3/4 by 8 5/16  National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

As you can see, the building portrayed in the Nativity is in ruins. The fact that the  building is open at the front is not an indication of it’s dilapidated state however. Leaving a wall out so that we can view what is happening inside was a common device. However, the roof has holes and we can see evidence of the building showing the signs of its age.

Mary and several angels are kneeling in adoration in front of the baby. The Christ child is naked, a reminder that God has come in the flesh to save us. Mary’s clothing has the distinctive angular folds that we see in Northern Renaissance works.

The Shepherds kneel at the open arched doorway, and if you look beyond them you will see in the distance an angel appearing to the shepherds in the field. This continuous narration gives us the shepherds story in that one doorway.

If you look closely into the darkness at the back of the stable you will see that the traditional oxen is back there feeding. Joseph is outside, entering from the left. Over Joseph a circle of angels celebrate the birth. Although I couldn’t read the banner, and it was probably in Latin or German, it is safe to assume it had the familiar line of the angels…Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth, Peace.

To the right of the angels is the star, shining over the stable, announcing his birth. At the foreground on a stone we see Durer’s initials, foreshortened as if it is really carved into the stone. Amazingly, as we look at this print we can tell the texture of stone from that of wood, we can feel the delicacy of the grasses growing from the roof. We can even make out details in the background of the painting, smoke from a chimney, shepherd’s on a hill. Just as painters painted landscapes with details in paintings, Durer has given us a full scene with all that we would expect to see if we were there. All of this done with black ink on white paper, without colors for shading or translucent glazes to trick the eye.

Albrecht Durer, The nativity

Another nativity scene, this one in what appears to be a deserted building. Joseph is hauling water, while Mary is inside with the infant.  In this print, Durer’s logo is hanging high up, as if it is a sign for a shop. The decay of the building, showing the decay of the world is evident, and through the open door we can see a house off in the distance.

Article on Durer's woodcuts

Albrecht Durer, The Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds from the Small Passion. The British Museum

When we use the words, The Passions of Christ, we are normally referring to the events of the last week of Christ’s life. During that time there was not only a great deal of physical suffering, but spiritual suffering as well. Painting cycles of the passion was very popular. By cycles I mean a series of paintings done of each individual event of that week. Often these cycles were done around the walls of a church.

With the advances of the printing press, Durer made a series of woodcuts about the Passion of Christ, but it started with the Garden of Eden, The Fall, and a few other Old Testament stories, then Christ’s life, then the last weeks of His life.

The above woodcut is one of these from what is now referred to as Albrecht Durer’s The Small Passion. Consisting of 36 woodcuts and a title page, many copies were made of these and bound together. They  were collected by those who could afford a copy.

The first edition was made in 1511, and on the reverse of each print, written in Latin were the verses pertaining to the picture. It was very popular across Europe and was being printed in full cycles up to the 20th Century.

We have here many of the common nativity elements, Mary kneeling with arms crossed, a sign of prayer and submission most often found in Annunciation works. We have Joseph and the Shepherds, the star above the stable, and the angel appearing to the shepherds off in the distance. Along with this, in the beams directly above Mary is a clear reference to the cross.

Durer’s signature is in the foreground on a beam.

I’ll leave you with this famous carol, which seems to fit these prints. The second stanza of Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,

Jesus our Emmanuel

For other articles in this advent series, follow this link.

This is a video on how a woodcut print is made.

This is a video by the British Museum about Durer’s rhinoceros.


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

Metropolitan Museum of Art website

The Getty Center

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.



Sandro Botticelli and the Mystic Nativity

I, Sandro, painted this picture.

Article on the Mystic Nativity

Sandro Botticelli, The Mystic Nativity, 1500 National Gallery, London, England

Welcome to day 14.

‘I, Sandro, painted this picture at the end of the year 1500 in the troubles of Italy’

So begins the inscription at the top of the Mystic Nativity. Today’s piece is unique, complicated, and very beautiful. To begin to understand it we need a bit of background.

Allessandro Botticelli was an early Renaissance painter from Florence, Italy. Trained as a goldsmith, and as a worker in Fra Lippi’s workshop he received excellent training. Having a clear understanding of strict linear perspective, how to use a consistent light source, and how to model figures with mass, in this painting he ignores most of these principles. As we look at the Mystic Nativity and see these deviations we should recognize that the deviations were done very intentionally.

Botticelli was under the patronage of Lorenzo Medici, the ruler of Florence.  The Medici court was a center of intellectual and cultural development. A high value was placed on art, literature, and philosophy. In this atmosphere, the intelligent and sensitive Botticelli thrived. He developed as a person and an artist.  In particular he blossomed as he came to embrace the Philosophy of Beauty. This can sound strange to us, but beauty was valued along with truth and justice. I think it’s important to understand that this was a serious theme in philosophy for most of our history. Here I’ve quoted a bit of an article from the  Stanford Dictionary of Philosphy. This was from an article revised in 2016.

“The nature of beauty is one of the most enduring and controversial themes in Western philosophy, and is—with the nature of art—one of the two fundamental issues in philosophical aesthetics. Beauty has traditionally been counted among the ultimate values, with goodness, truth, and justice. It is a primary theme among ancient Greek, Hellenistic, and medieval philosophers, and was central to eighteenth and nineteenth-century thought.”

Botticelli’s Primevera

Surrounded by discussions of beauty, goodness, and religion Botticelli found the perfect intellectual backdrop for his mythical paintings. We might look at them, and see beauty, but there are a great deal of complex visual ideas being explored.  During the 1480’s while connected to the Medici’s he did some of his most famous works. Along with mythical paintings he did portraits and religious paintings. In particular his workshop produced many Madonna and child compositions.

The Map of Hell painting by Botticelli is one of the extant ninety-two drawings that were originally included in the illustrated manuscript of Dante’s Divine Comedy commissioned by Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco de’ Medici. Artist Sandro Botticelli Year c. 1485[1]

Also contributing to Botticelli’s intellectual development was his work with Dante’s, Divine Comedy. Lorenzo Medici asked him to draw illustrations for portions of the Comedy. More than 100 of the drawings he worked on remain. This would have meant intense study and discussions of the finer points of this work. It would be hard to overstate the importance that Dante’s poem had on Christianity. An epic poem, theological treatise, and prophetic vision, this poem solidified ideas on heaven, hell and purgatory. Botticelli was immersed in this work and its visions and images. Coming into the early 1490’s Botticelli entered a period of profound spiritual crisis. This coincided with several other events that contributed to his creation of the Mystic Nativity.

As the year 1500 was approaching people were becoming fearful that the end of the world was soon to come. Botticelli believed he lived in the end times and that Christ second coming was imminent. Millenarianism was gaining traction. People believed that they were living in the in between times from Revelation. They read the verse ‘1/2 time after time’ and believed that time was 1,000 years and that the year 1500 was significant. As they watched wars, famines, plagues enveloping Florence they felt that this was the devil unleashed before the second coming.

Fra Girolamo Savonarola

Into this world came a charismatic religious leader, Fra Girolamo Savonarola. A Dominican monk, he preached boldly against the excesses in Florentine society. He denounced worldliness, godless art, scandalous writings, and corruption in the church. He gained quite a following.  He claimed to be a prophet who could hear God’s voice and see visions. By all accounts he was genuine in his piety and fervor.

His preaching included a plea to Florence to repent and return to God. He said if they did Florence would be the New Jerusalem and Florence would be richer, more powerful and glorious than ever. His emphasis on civic glory and protection held great appeal. One prophecy involved a new Cyrus invading from the north who would reform the church.

It appeared that his prophecy was coming true when Charles VIII invaded from France, bringing with him 10,000 soldiers. Florence expected to be sacked and burned. Savonarola went out to meet with Charles and negotiated for the cities safety. Once Charles agreed the Medici’s were driven out and Savonarola established a republic government and called for many reforms.  This was the period of the ‘bonfires of the vanities’ when people made massive bonfires burning books, art, mirrors, combs, and other examples of their excessive lifestyles and vanity. It is highly likely Botticelli saw some of his own paintings thrown into the flames. Savonarola and his government ruled Florence from 1494-1498.

Public opinion turned within 4 years and Savonarola and his 2 closest allies were convicted of being heretics. Savonarola, while being tortured admitted he’d made up the visions. The men were hung and burned. This was to insure there would be nothing left for his followers to turn into holy relics, and so ended 4 years of religious extremest rule.

So what does all of this have to do with a nativity painting. Quite a bit I think. This painting was hidden away for nearly 300 years, has no documentation, so Art Historians have had to play sleuths to figure out the oddities in the painting. I’m going to present what I believe is going on. If you are intrigued, you can look into all of the various theories. They are fascinating.

Article about the Mystic Nativity

Sandro Botticelli, The Mystic Nativity, 1500. The National Gallery in London

In 1500 Botticelli painted a small nativity work on canvas. It is the only work Botticelli ever signed.

Botticelli seems have been in an odd, in-between position. He was a close friend of the Medici court. His brother Simon who was also his roommate was a followner of Savonarola. He was struggling spiritually and with the place art played in his faith. The Mystic Nativity appears to be a visual representation of a sermon that Savonarola gave about the second coming of Christ.

The painting was done on canvas, this was unusual. He normally painted on wooden panels. There is no known commission for this work. It’s entirely possible he painted it as a personal devotional work, or for someone who didn’t want to be identified. As it was painted onto a canvas it was much easier to conceal and in fact was ‘lost’ for nearly 300 years. If it was indeed a visual record of a Savonarola sermon it would have been dangerous for Botticelli to have it recognized as such as he’d been declared a heretic. In fact, his followers were searched out in an effort to root out the lingering political threat they might stir up against the Medici family and the current Pope.

The painting has an inscription on the top in Greek. It reads….

“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”

Article on Botticelli's Mystical Nativity

Detail from Botticelli’s Mystical Nativity

The work appears to be a joyous celebration of the nativity, and in fact the top section of circling angels has been used on many Christmas cards. However, there are darker elements at play here. Beyond the disquieting quote at the top, if one looks closely there are demons disappearing into the ground at the bottom of the painting, and angels appear to be wrestling individuals. This is not a Christmas card nativity scene, but one full of spiritual struggle. There is a convergence of diagonal rocky paths, cold winter skies. While there is joy and celebration, there is also pain.

Let’s start with the 12 angels and gold dome at the top of the painting. The 12 is thought to refer to 12 hours, or the 12 months of the year. Botticelli’s training as a goldsmith is in evidence here as he has put gold leaf over the top to create this opening into the heavens. Gold doesn’t decay or tarnish, so it was the choice to stand for heavenly spaces. As the surface of the canvas was a bit uneven, the gold would have been uneven as well, which would have created a glittery surface, reflecting light.

It is believed that this representation of an opening to heaven is a memory from Botticelli’s childhood. Theatrical religious plays were quite popular at the time, and at San Felice in Piazza, the architect Brunelleschi created a circling dome that held children dressed as angels that spun slowly suspended from the ceiling, for an Annunciation play. It must have been quite a spectacle, and one that was likely witnessed by Botticelli.

In this painting, the angels dressed in white, red, and a burnished green circle the opening. They carry olive branches and scrolls, and there are crowns suspended, twirling with them. The angels repeat several times throughout the work, always in red, green and white robes. These signify Faith (white), Hope (green), and Charity or love (red). The green is an obvious green in other parts of the painting, although in this top section it appears that the robes have been burnished with gold so that they are no longer a true green. It has been suggested that this is because we are now entering heaven so hope is no longer needed, our hope has come to fruition.

Article on Botticelli's Mystical Nativity

Detail from Botticelli’s Mystical Nativity

The crowns were mentioned in Savonarola’s Assumption Day sermon. Savonarola also expounded on the 12 privileges of the Virgin Mary. The writing that can still be read on the scrolls says ‘Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.’ While the writing on these scrolls cannot all be read with the naked eye, using infra-red reflectography it has been shown that each of Savonarola’s privileges are listed on the scrolls.

The Angels are also holding olive branches, the symbol for peace. Interestingly, in the 1500’s what is now celebrated as Palm Sunday was then called Olive Sunday, as the Prince of Peace was entering Jerusalem and carried the olive branch with him. Olive branches are everywhere in this work.

Article on Botticelli's Mystical Nativity

Detail from Botticelli’s Mystical Nativity.

Below the circlet of angels we have the stable where the Holy Family gathers. Here we have the combination of cave and stable. The cave looking forward to Christ burial sepulcher. The ox and ass look down at the Christ child. Mary is there, bent forward, adoring the baby. Mary and Jesus are extremely large, even kneeling Mary barely fits into the stable. This emphasized their importance.

The baby is an interesting picture. We have a mix of symbols here. The baby is naked, which traditionally was to remind us that God took on flesh. But we also have his swaddling, which was often painted in a way to remind us of his funeral wrappings, but here they have been kicked aside, literally, as the baby is kicking.

Article of Botticelli's Mystical Nativity

Detail in Botticelli’s Mystical Nativity

As this painting is a coming together of Christ first and second coming, what we have here is the baby of the first coming, combined with the image of the risen Christ who has cast aside his funeral wrappings. His leg is kicking to signify that he, by dying and rising from the dead has crushed Satan under his foot. With this image and the abundance of olive branches signifying peace we are reminded of the verse, ‘The God of peace will crush Satan under his feet.”

Article on Botticelli's Mystical Nativity

Detail of Botticelli’s Mystical Nativity

The magi are on the left, pictured without their regal finery or gifts, instead they bring only their own devotion. The shepherds mirror them on the side. With each group is an angel with an olive branch. From each branch unfurls a ribbon that once read, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” John 1:29

From there if we set our sights on the foreground we encounter a mysterious part of the painting. Here we have three men, each paired with an angel. The angels have olive branches with ribbons streaming that say, “Peace on earth to men of good will.” Who exactly these men are and what is going on has been a subject of much debate. I’ll give you several possibilities.

Article from Botticelli's Mystical Nativity

Detail from Botticelli’s Mystical Nativity.

  1.  This is Savonarola and his two companions being raised up in the last days with the angels.
  2. These are unknown martyrs being raised up at Christ’s second coming representing all of those who come through the tribulation.
  3. These represent the philosophies of the world that are ceremonially wrestling with the angels representing God.
  4. We are meant to read this picture from left to right, taking the path that runs in front of these figures. The angels are not pulling them up, but helping them to kneel. From left to right the men are going down onto their knees, the only proper position to approach the scene in the manger.
  5. Angels are pulling people out of a state of religious limbo, perhaps where Botticelli feels that he is.

Below these figures, if one looks closely, there are demons escaping in the cracks in the earth. These demons have been vanquished by the coming of Christ. Christ presence causes them to flee, a few seemingly falling onto their own weapons.

Article from Botticelli's Mystical Nativity

Detail from Botticelli’s Mystical Nativity

As we saw yesterday in our work by Hugo Van Der Goes, in this painting Botticelli rejects standard rules of perspective and creates dissonance and destabilization. This emphasizes that we are at a time of transition and transformation. The Nativity and the Second Coming change everything.

While much of the early Renaissance was focused on rendering the body and space naturally, Botticelli was always occupied with the stresses of the soul. His strong religious beliefs and struggles became more and more evident, until his works became highly emotional pictures with intense religious themes.

Eventually he would give up painting all together, it is thought due to his spiritual struggles. This seems exceedingly sad to me. The Mystical Nativity is primarily about peace. That through Christ coming, both His first and His second coming, evil has fled and Peace reigns. It is a message of faith, hope, and love, just as the repetition of the angels colors are meant to remind us. It is a message of triumph. Yet, I’m not sure the message, reached Botticelli and his struggling soul.

A man who could paint such beauty, struggle with questions of faith, and offer others the hope that Christmas brings should have been able to be at peace with his artistic gift, and able to enjoy it and the beauty he was able to create.

It is a good reminder for us this Christmas time. Botticelli lived in a turbulent time, pulled many directions at once, afraid of many things, war, death, plague, famine, and the state of his eternal soul…yet what Christ came to give at Christmas was the gift of peace. Peace with God and peace with men.  Peace on earth and goodwill toward all men.


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

Metropolitan Museum of Art website

The Getty Center

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.

The Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo Van Der Goes

Analysis of the Portinari Altarpiece by Van Der Goes.

Analysis of the Portinari Altarpiece by Hugo Van Der Goes

Hugo Van Der Goes, The Portinari Triptych 1479 Uffizi, Florence, Italy

Welcome to day 13.

Hugo Van Der Goes is recognized as one of the most original and bold of the Netherlandish painters. Born in or around Ghent, he spent most of his artistic life there.

He completed altarpieces, portraits, court commissions and civic projects.  Few of his original works have survived, however we have many copies of his works. The extent to which copies were made is a testament to his popularity and enduring influence in the area. His influence extended far beyond Ghent. Part of that influence is due to the Portinari Triptych that we will be looking at today.

The Portinari Triptych was ordered for the church of San Egidio in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence. The piece was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari, who was from Florence but was living in Bruges as he was the manager of that branch of the Medici Bank. He probably made the commission to show that while he lived abroad he was still loyal to Florence, and lest anyone forget him, he and his family are included  in the painting. I know that painting in the donors was common, but it still seems so odd to me.

On an interesting side note, 100 years earlier Dante had written his Divine Comedy and included another member of the Portinari family. Dante had been in love with Beatrice Portinari and crafted her into the story as his guide through heaven.

Article on the Portinari Altarpiece

Hugo Van Der Goes, The Portinari Altarpiece, or Portinari Triptych. 1479 Uffizi in Florence, Italy.

This is a very large altarpiece, over 8 feet high and over 19 feet long. It is a triptych, meaning there are three panels. The side panels fold in. Often triptych’s were displayed closed and then opened on special days of the year. The triptych was finished around  1479 and transported by boat to Sicily, then by barge to Porta San Frediano in Florence. Over part of the trip it was supposedly carried by ’16 burly porters’. I imagine it was quite heavy. Anyway, it arrived at it’s destination in May 1483. Sadly, Hugo Van Der Goes had died before his most famous work made it to it’s home.

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The Annunciation with Two Donors by Filippo Lippi

Day 12 in our Advent in Art Series

Article on Filippo Lippi

Filippo Lippi, The Annunciation with two donors, National Gallery of Art in Rome, Italy 1440

Welcome to Day 11

The Holy Spirit will come upon you,
    the power of the Highest hover over you;
Therefore, the child you bring to birth
    will be called Holy, Son of God.

Filippo Lippi…his art and his life are fairly incongruous. He was a bit of a scoundrel, well, more than a bit. Figuring out where fact and fiction separate is difficult.

Lippi, an Italian Renaissance painter from Florence, was orphaned as a child, and sent to live with an aunt, at 8 he was given to a convent as the aunt was too poor to keep him. Given the era he lived in, this wasn’t a bad deal. She placed him and his brother with the Carmelite monks at Santa Maria del Carmine. While he was there the great master Masaccio was decorating the Brancacci chapel with frescos. He couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the art of painting, and Masaccio’s work would continue to influence him over his lifetime.

According to the story Lippi spent his time during lessons drawing on his and other students notebooks. Finally, it was determined that his time would be better spent in art lessons. He took his vows with the Carmelite friars when he was 16. After working on frescos in the church, at 18, he and a few companions left the convent.

Here the story becomes a mix of legend and fact. It is said he was kidnapped by Barbary Pirates and kept as a slave for 18 months. He won his release because of his artistic abilities. What is known is that he was in Padua for a period of time, and none of his artwork from this period exists.

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Jan Van Eyck’s The Annunciation, The Hidden Meanings.

Day 11 of our Advent in Art Series

Article on Van Eyck's Annunciation

Jan Van Eyck, The Annunciation 1434-36, Oil on canvass, transferred from a wood panel. National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

Welcome to day 11.

for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
    For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed      Luke 1

It has been said that the Flemish wish is to paint more than the eye can see, and almost more than the mind can comprehend. This statement seems to sum up Jan Van Eyck. He sees the world with a luminous clarity that takes into account every detail and imbues each with spiritual meaning.

Jan Van Eyck is a Netherlandish painter who astonishes with his use of light, color, and meaningful details. An educated man who knew some Latin, Greek, and Hebrew and a great deal of theology, Van Eyck was the trusted painter of the Duke of Burgundy, Philip the Good, not just painting for him but taking on secret missions and acting as his emissary.

Along with his signature, on many works, Van Eyck often included his personal motto. “Als ich chan”(As best I can).

Information about his early training is unclear, but it is believed he and a brother, Hubert, received training in illustrated manuscripts. This would make sense when one considers the amazing small details in his paintings.

The work we are considering today is his Annunciation. It is a single panel that was probably once a part of a triptych, a 3 panel altarpiece. I feel the need to again remind you that looking at a reproduction of a work is not the same as seeing it in person. This particular painting has had a long history, some sad attempts at conservation, and some great restoration, a long and exacting process. This work was painted on a wood panel, but was later transferred to canvas.

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Day 10 Van Der Weyden

The Visitation by Rogier Van Der Weyden

Article on The Visitation by Rogier Van Der Weyden

Rogier Van Der Weyden, The Visitation, 1445, Museum der Bildenden Kunste, Leipzig.

Welcome to Day 10.

We return to the North to look at the work of a student of Robert Campin (we covered Campin on Day 8). We will be focusing on The Visitation, a small panel painting, and then taking a quicker look at The Nativity, where another version of The Visitation is painted.

First, a little background on Rogier Van Der Weyden. He is a Netherlandish painter who was from Tournai, France, but spent most of his artistic life in Brussels. We know that he was a highly successful artists who was internationally famous during his lifetime. He, Robert Campin, and Jan Van Eyck are considered the three greatest Flemish painters of the Northern Renaissance. He held the title, Painter to the Town of Brussels. As Brussels was where the resplendent court of the Duke of Burgundy was, this was quite prestigious.

His early training is a bit fuzzy, as the records were destroyed during  World War 2. It is believed that he trained under Robert Campin in Tournai.  Civil records let us know when he became a Master, that he was generous and served on the boards of charities and his guild. We know of commissions his workshop received, and payments. With all that we do know, it is surprising that we are less sure about which paintings are his.

Van Der Weyden never signed his works. He worked in other artists workshops before becoming a master, and then when he was made a Master he had a large workshop of his own. So, while we know that he received a commission for a work, we cannot know for certain that he is the one who painted it.

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Advent in Art, Day 9 Donatello

The Annunciation by Donatello

Article on Donatello and The Annunciation at Santa Croce

Donatello, The Annunciation. Bascillica Santa Croce, Florence, Italy.

Welcome to day 9. I’m excited that today we get to examine a work by one of the esteemed Ninja Turtles… Donatello.

Born Donato di Niccolo di Betto Bardi, he is generally referred to as Donatello. (Thank Goodness!) Of the great High Renaissance Master’s, only Michelangelo outranks him. Donatello lived from 1386-1466, The other Ninja Turtles (sorry, can’t help myself) Michelangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael won’t show up on the art scene for nearly 50 years, and all will be indebted to the work Donatello did.

Donatello lived in Florence, he received excellent training in the workshop of Lorenzo Ghiberti.  Ghiberti was one of the most important early Renaissance sculptors and metalworkers, most famous for the bronze doors of the Baptistery of Florence. With that training, and his own genius Donatello made his mark quite young, and had a long successful career.

Donatello was one of a cadre of artists in Florence gathered around the architect Filippo Brunelleschi. This group set out to create a new style of art. They had grown tired of the refinement of the International Gothic style and instead turned to nature, science and ancient Rome.  During this time period excavations were going on in Rome and new discoveries were being made daily. Brunelleschi and Donatello traveled to Rome to help, observe, and learn from the Roman sculpture and buildings that were being unearthed. They would return from the experience changed. Each would incorporate this new knowledge into future works.

Article on Donatello

Donatello, The Annunciation, Florence, Italy

This Annunciation, in many ways, is simpler than what we have viewed in this series so far. There are only the two main figures without signs or symbols to communicate additional meaning. The Angel Gabriel has entered on the left, and has interrupted Mary reading. We see the book in Mary’s hand. However, Mary appears to be fleeing the frame, at least her body is. She inclines her head back, listening. It’s as if her body is going one direction, but her head another.

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Advent in Art Day 8 Robert Campin

The Merode Altarpiece by Robert Campin

article on the Annunciation by Campin. Welcome to Day 8.

Today we are moving north into Flanders, or modern day Belgium, which was part of France in the 1300’s. It’s confusing, and fascinating to trace the geography, but that is for another time.  What is important is that Robert Campin was part of the Northern Renaissance. The work we will be examining is the Merode Altarpiece, sometimes called The Annunciation Triptych, and it is in The Cloisters, a part of The Metropolitan Museum in New York City.

Only recently has Campin received the recognition he deserves. He was a very well known, and well documented painter, however, he was routinely referred to as the Master of Flemalle. Only recently have art historians concluded that the Master of Flemalle was Robert Campin.  In the past many of his works have been attributed to other artists, and some are still disputed. Painters in the early 1400’s rarely signed their works, or they signed the frame. Frames do not always survive, so without a signature experts must resort to detective work and make a best guess. As more information comes to light, new evaluations need to be made.

Article on the Merode Altarpiece

The Mérode Altarpiece, also called The Annunciation Triptych, oil on wood panel, by Robert Campin, c. 1425; at the Cloisters, New York City.

The piece we are going to look at is a portable altarpiece. It is not large, 2 feet high and four feet wide. This meant the work could be easily transported and was intended for personal worship. The central panel was painted first, then when it was purchased the donor asked for the side panels to be added. He wanted himself painted in on the left wing. It was common for the person who purchased a work to have themselves painted in. The side panels are hinged so that the piece can be folded up.

This painting is done on a wood panel with oil paint. Oil was a recent innovation in the north. When painting with tempera, the paint is opaque, and therefore does not reflect light. After a painting was finished a varnish was added to make the surface reflective. This also added depth to the colors. Without a varnish tempera paint has the look of pastels. Tempera was made by mixing pigments with water, then egg yolks, and generally one other binding ingredient. Without an additional ‘glue’ element the tempera would crack and even flake off. Tempera is also not suited to painting on canvas.

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Advent in Art Day 7 Fra Angelico

The Annunciation in Cortona by Fra Angelico, 1433-34

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation, 1433-1434

Welcome to Day 7.

Today we meet Fra Angelico. An early Italian Renaissance painter who was also a Dominican friar. When he joined the order, he changed his name to Fra Giovanni da Fiesole, or Father John of Fiesole. Later he was nicknamed Fra Beato Angelico, or Fra Angelico. His modest piety and his beautiful paintings earned him the nickname Father Angel, or Father Beautiful Angel. Now he is almost universally referred to as Fra Angelico.

As one would suppose, his art revolved around religious themes. One of his favorite subjects was the Annunciation,. Fra Angelico was influenced by the International Gothic style, by the colors of Sienna and by Giotto’s work. His work has the elements of the early Renaissance, while retaining the elegant lines of Gothic painting.

The piece we will focus on is an altarpiece, sometimes called a retable. That means that the piece sits on the altar, or on a table placed behind the altar, as opposed to a piece which sits on the floor.  It was first made for the Church of Gesu of Cortona, but has since been moved into the Museo Diocesano in Cortona. When this painting is referred to the city of Cartona is always included so this is The Annunciation of Cortona. This is necessary because Fra Angelico painted many Annunciations.

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation of Cortona, Museo Diocesano in Cortona. 1433-1434

As we read this work we have the angel Gabriel arriving from the left to tell Mary that she is going to have a child. Mary is seated on the right, in a portico reading her Bible. Gabriel is clothed in glory, quite literally as we see the rays of golden light shining around him. The sumptuous pink color and gold thread of the robe evokes the riches of heaven. His wings are luminous. The angel has just stepped into Mary’s garden and is intent on sharing the message he has been entrusted with. His head is jutted forward, his eyes intent on Mary.

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