It’s Christmas, and have I got a glorious gift for you all (frankly, anyone who’s logging in to learn about art on a day so deeply ensconced in the festive period definitely deserves a treat). Inevitably today’s painting is of the Christian persuasion, but I think it’ll cater to all creeds, on the simple basis of its sublime appearance. The Nativity (c. 1450) comes proffered by Petrus Christus (active 1444 – 1475), a Netherlandish artist we’ve befriended before on Art 2010. This though is better than the portraits we looked at then: indeed, this is one of the artist’s most important devotional paintings.
I’ve a plan here, to unpack and unpick each little piece of the picture, rather like unravelling a great glut of presents from under the tree. I’m certain we’ll all get something we like. This scene is delivered beyond a birth narrative to incorporate Christus’s conception of it as one link in a chain of events: here too we have the sequence of Fall and Redemption of man. So in the stone archway appear Adam and Eve, she on the cusp of offering the apple to her man.
In the carved arch slide scenes from Genesis, while right in the foreground, at the bases of those blood-colored columns, are two figures, who in their heaving struggle stand for man burdened by Original Sin.
It’s the coming of Christ that cleanses that transgression so that our focus must fall on the mini baby wriggling on the floor. This is where we see Christus’s knack for naturalism, in the anatomy of the infant, and in the refined faces of Mary and Joseph.
Accuracy too comes in with that shooting recession: Christus is credited with being the first northern European artist to use geometrically sound perspective. Here he applies it to the folding hills that nestle what looks like a Netherlandish town (though in fact the two domes suggest it’s Jerusalem, cited at the place of Christ’s Passion).
Which brings us back to the multi-layered story at hand. Those pixie-proportioned angels are adding another dimension: their gorgeous glowing vestments are very reminiscent of the garments worn by ministers of Mass, so that this moment meshes the physical birth with its celebration in the church.
I promised a present that pleasures, irrespective of faith. Who wouldn’t coo at the jubilant, jewel-like colors on this panel? Or the breath-taking botanical detail in the far-off foliage? See the strangely evocative beasts by the manger, one chewing and one raising his head to the hay. Perhaps best are the figures in their simple flemish costumes, who give this scene a stage-like essence. This Christus really is the gift that keeps on giving.