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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Art and Jesus--the Nativity

Nativity, 1303-06, Giotto
Copyright, Jim Lane
Unto Us, 1999, Jim Lane
Without a doubt, the most popular religious subject of all time is the nativity, if for no other reason than its association with Christmas and the popularity of such scenes on holiday greeting cards. Yet artists from the past were relatively late in picking up on this trend. I, myself, was also relatively late in responding to the nativity as a source of inspiration. My own Unto Us (left), dates from 1999. And yes, we have used it on our Christmas cards at least once. My nephew, his wife, and their newborn son were the models. The boy is now fourteen.
One of the earliest nativities dates from as late as 1303, the work of the great Florentine artist, Giotto (top). Strangely, this and many of the earliest nativities gravitated toward scenes of the adoration of the Magi, such as the Medieval one by Altichierico, The Adoration of the Magi (below), dating from 1330.
Adoration of the Magi, 1330, Altichierico
The Adoration of the Shepherds,
1612-14, El Greco
The famous artist El Greco chose to depict The Adoration of the Shepherds painted near the end of the artist's life. El Greco also created a smaller version of the painting to be hung over his tomb. The elongated figures, the colors, the high contrasts, and the complex composition give the painting an almost expressionistic style several hundred years ahead of its time. El Greco's assistant claims the artist was working on the painting until the time of his death in 1614.

More typical is the Renaissance approach to the subject of The Nativity (below, right) by Antonio Correggio from around 1529-30, in which he rendered the holy family, shepherds, and angels in a traditional manner. By comparing it to El Greco's nativity, we see underlined the stark contrast between the Renaissance and the prevailing Mannerist style of the early 1600s, as well as an indication of what a major departure El Greco's work in general was from the norm.
The Bladelin Triptych (central panel, Nativity), 1445-50, Rogier van der Weyden
Nativity, 1529-30, Correggio
Nativities have also been popular in northern Renaissance altarpieces such as seen in the Bladelin triptych (right). Located in the Flemish town of Middleburg, the painting is named for the wealthy burgher, Pieter Bladelin, and his wife who, not only founded the town, but financed the painting for their church. The man on the left is the donor. The left hand panel (not shown) likewise depicts the donor as well as his wife. The right panel (also not shown) depicts the three magi, one of whom looks suspiciously like the donor, whose image thus appears three times in the work It was not uncommon during this period in art history for donors to appear in religious works in the pious act of worship, but Pieter Bladelin may hold the record for such "holy adoration."
A modern-day depiction of the nativity by the Spanish artist, Irene.
In more recent years, it has become difficult to separate great art featuring the birth of Christ from the Christmas card illustrations mentioned earlier. Though done in colored pencil, the nineteen-year-old Spanish artists, Irene's Nativity Scene is a highly realistic rendering suggesting a first-century photographer may have captured the scene. Either way, it seems straight from a greeting card...or destined for one. A less traditional modern interpretation of the nativity can be seen in Brian Kershisnik's 2006 Nativity (below), a wall-size mural on canvas depicting angels rushing to see the Christ-child. The video at the bottom lets us peek into the artist's mind.
Nativity, 2006, Brian Kershisnik, Brigham Young University Museum of Art

This unusual Mormon version of the Nativity is discussed by the artist below:

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