AN ART LOVER's GUIDE TO CHRISTMAS - 'The Nativity', c 1492, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
This beautiful fifteenth century panel painting hangs in the Italian gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum and makes the perfect Christmas card. The painting is by Domenico Ghirlandaio who ran a successful workshop in Florence in the late fifteenth century and taught the young Michelangelo. All the essential elements of the Nativity are here - Mary, Joseph, the ox, the ass, the stable and an animated baby Jesus. The scene takes place in a landscape of receding hills and blue mountains. In the fields behind the stable, the angel brings the ‘glad tidings’ of Jesus’ birth to the shepherds watching their flocks. They are then seen journeying along the winding road to Bethlehem. Further in the distance are the Magi who are led to the Christ child by a golden star.
Mary is shown kneeling, her hands held in prayer as she adores her first born son. His hands reach up as if to acknowledge his earthly mother’s role in his miraculous birth. The baby lies not in a manger but on the ground. This particular iconography of the nativity became very popular in the fifteenth century and was inspired by the visions of the fourteenth century mystic and saint, Bridget of Sweden.
The graceful figures and harmonious colours reflect Ghirlandaio’s assimilation of the ideas of the early Italian Renaissance while the naturalistic details of plants, animals and landscape show the influence of Flemish art on Florentine artists at this time. By combining the different elements of the story with skill and veracity, Ghirlandaio creates a timeless image of the Nativity.
All posts written and researched by Sarah Burles, founder of Cambridge Art Tours. The 'Art Lover's Guide to Cambridge' was sent out weekly during the first Covid 19 lockdown while Cambridge museums, libraries and colleges were closed.