sat 25/05/2024

Yuletide Scenes: Piero della Francesca's Nativity | reviews, news & interviews

Yuletide Scenes: Piero della Francesca's Nativity

Yuletide Scenes: Piero della Francesca's Nativity

For the first of our Christmas scenes, we revisit a Renaissance masterpiece

The Nativity (1470-75) by Piero della Francesca © National Gallery, London

At first sight Piero della Francesca’s The Nativity appears to be a simple picture, especially when compared with more flamboyant depictions of the scene by artists such as Gentile de Fabriano, Botticelli and Rubens. Like a director staging a play on a limited budget, Piero has been sparing with his cast, props and scenery.

Only 10 actors are included: Mary kneels on the ground gazing at her newborn son who lies on a corner of her cloak, five angels celebrate Christ’s birth in song and Joseph sits on a saddle beside two shepherds who seem to have just arrived on the scene. In addition, there’s the ox and ass, a magpie and two finches.

Piero has opted for precision over drama; nothing in this exquisite painting is arbitrary or superfluous. The magi and their retinues have been left out along with the hoards of onlookers who often crowd nativity scenes as they jostle for a glimpse of the Christ child, thereby emphasising the historic importance of his birth. But Piero tells the Christian story through subtle details that create a sense of clarity, order and stillness far more compelling than visual fireworks.

The scene takes place on a rocky outcrop overlooking a landscape that resembles the valley of the Arno, with lollipop trees and a limpid river meandering round biscuit-coloured hills. The city portrayed in such detail on the right could easily be Piero's home town of Borgo Sansepolcro. He has situated The Nativity on his own doorstep in Tuscany, acknowledgement of the ongoing significance of the event to him and his countrymen.

The hilltop is painted in the same colours as the distant landscape; dark green vegetation is threaded through the biscuit-coloured ground and along the planks of the stable roof like embroidery silk. The makeshift roof is reminiscent of the canopies that often hang above the Virgin in paintings showing her enthroned. These unusual details make the barren spot seem furnished, as though it were a church interior rather than an exposed headland, perhaps to indicate that this momentous happening will mean the founding of the Christian church.

The picture is divided into warm and cool areas. The left hand side is painted in the same colours as the landscape with the addition of subtle grey-blues which permeate the sky, stable walls, Mary’s cloak and the angels’ tunics to produce a harmonious sense of unity. Joseph and the shepherds are painted in much warmer, earthier colours (detail pictured above right). Their ruddy skin tones suggest exposure to the sun – in dramatic contrast to the pallor which sets Mary, Jesus and the angels apart, as though they were ethereal beings not quite of this world.

Yet Mary’s status is ambiguous. Her placement between angels and mortals implies an affinity with both camps and, while her blue robe suggests divinity, the crimson bodice beneath indicates her human origins. She may be Christ’s mother, but she is not his equal; for while the baby lies on the embroidered “carpet” which he shares with the angels, Mary is relegated to the bare ground, where she kneels at a distance from her son, hands clasped in prayer as though worshipping him. This odd layout brilliantly encapsulates her role in Christian belief as a link or go-between – the one who can intercede with heaven on our behalf.

Piero was a renowned mathematician as well as artist; he wrote treatises on perspective and Euclidian geometry and his compositions are frequently informed by his advanced knowledge. For instance, the layout of his Baptism of Christ, which also hangs in the National Gallery, consists of a circle overlapping a square with the dove (holy ghost) at the centre of the circle and Christ’s body providing the vertical axis. 

Dated between 1470 and 1475, The Nativity is his last known painting and, in it, he risks a new departure. The ruined stable and those on the warm side of the painting are located at an angle to the picture plane. Sitting with one foot on his knee and his hands tightly clasped, Joseph is painted with robust realism. So are the shepherds, but sadly their faces have been damaged by inept restoration; one points at the sky, probably recounting their extraordinary journey, following the star. The lumbering ox and braying ass are also beautifully observed; the group is like a microcosm of daily life. Creating a dynamic sense of immediacy, they exemplify a capacity for immersion in the moment.

The Virgin is placed almost on the diagonal, but her stillness and introspection are in marked contrast to the vitality of the others; her thoughts seem to be fixed on higher things and, stylistically, she also belongs in another painting. Her oval face, slender body and the self-containment of her pose suggest the influence of Flemish masters such as Rogier van der Weyden, whom Piero could have met in Ferrara. Piero’s use of oil paint rather than tempera is another outcome of this benign influence.

Meanwhile, the angels and naked infant are situated parallel to the picture plane; visually they function like anchors – emphatically present, yet somehow timeless. Playing their lutes and singing directly at us, the angels seem to present a wall of sound that drowns out the gossiping bystanders and the braying donkey (who represents disbelief) with a message of hope and rebirth. They have even stilled the noisy chatter of the magpie (detail pictured above left), which perches above them on the roof bearing witness to the significance of the event that Piero della Francesca depicts with such subtle beauty and such incredible economy of means.

Playing their lutes and singing directly at us, the angels seem to present a wall of sound

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