Saturday, December 27, 2008
A Nativity at Night
This post comes a few days late for Christmas, but it is always a good time for a beautiful painting. In honor of the season, I give you one of my favorite (if not very favorite) Nativity scenes in European art, the lovely late 15th-century "Nativity at Night" by the Netherlandish painter known as Geertgen tot Sint Jans (image courtesy the National Gallery website, click to enlarge). This small (34 x 25.3 cm) oil painting on wood panel today is in the National Gallery in London and is one of the earliest nighttime Nativity images. I first saw it in an undergraduate Northern Renaissance art history class about twenty years ago and have loved it ever since.
Geertgen tot Sint Jans is thought to have been born in Leiden and to have been a pupil of the Haarlem painter Albert van Ouwater, one of the first Netherlandish oil painters. Geertgen, however, had a short career; he was associated with the monastery of the knights of Saint John in Haarlem (hence his nickname) and died there in his late twenties. Only about a dozen to 15 works attributed to him survive today (some are disputed). We do know that some of his paintings were destroyed by iconoclasts during the Reformation.
This peaceful Nativity is partly inspired by the visions of the 14th-century mystic Bridget of Sweden, who envisioned the dazzling body of the infant Christ at the Incarnation. The Virgin Mary, angels, and even friendly animals gather around the manger; Joseph stands in the shadows, hand to his chest in awe. In the background, a hovering angel gives another point of light, announcing the good news to the shepherds on the hillside. Throughout, Geertgen tot Sint Jans uses the medium of oil paint to its best advantage, in his rendering of light and shade, and careful detail. Photographs do not do this piece justice -- in the museum, faced with its small size, one can appreciate even more the delicacy and virtuosity of Geertgen's hand, as well as the moving nature of the subject.
Happy Holidays to all and a belated Merry Christmas!