The Nativity in Art From Giotto to Picasso

The Nativity in Art From Giotto to Picasso. A Christmas lecture by Clare Ford-Wille

Below are the notes that lare kindly sent out to accompany her talk

THE NATIVITY IN ART IN ALL ITS VARIETY from Giotto to Stanley Spencer




Of the four Gospel writers, only Matthew (2:1-12) and Luke (2:1-20) mention and describe anything about Christ’s Nativity and in different ways.  St. Matthew writes about ‘Wise Men’, rather than Kings, following a star and ‘entering the house’, not a stable. Moreover we are not told how many of them there were. St. Luke states that Mary laid the baby in a manger because, ‘there was no room for them in the inn’.  However, in the apocryphal Book of James and Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the narrative is a little different.  In the Book of James mention of a cave is made ‘And he found a cave there and brought her into it…..And behold a bright cloud overshadowing the cave….The cloud withdrew itself out of the cave a a great light appeared in the cave so that our eyes could not endure it. And by little and little that light withdrew itself until the young child appeared: and it went and took the breast of its mother Mary’. In the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew the ox and ass enter the story: ‘an angel made her dismount and enter a dark cave which began to shine….On the third day Mary left the cave and went to a stable and put the child in the manger, and the ox and ass adored him.’


During the 15th century particularly the Virgin is shown kneeling in adoration and this follows the writings of St. Bridget of Sweden who visited Bethlehem in 1370 and wrote in her Revelations of her vision of the Virgin: ‘When her time came she took off her shoes and her white cloak and undid her veil, letting her golden hair fall on her shoulders.  Then she prepared the swaddling clothes which she put down beside her.  When all was ready, she bent her knees and began to pray.  While she was thus praying with hands raised the child was suddenly born, surrounded by a light so bright that it completely eclipsed Joseph’s feeble candle.’


In the Eastern Church there are variations and traditions with Byzantine artists sometimes showing the Virgin on a proper bed, attended by midwives, and with the Christ child being washed.  The Book of James describes one of the two midwives, Mary Salome, denying that the Virgin could remain an intact virgin and examined her for proof, whereupon her arm, which had touched Mary, shrivelled but was made whole again when she picked up the Child.


In the 14th century the writings of the Pseudo-Bonaventura (Giovanni de Caulibus), in his Meditations, described how ‘The Virgin arose in the night and leaned against a pillar. Joseph brought into the stable a bundle of hay which he threw down and the Son of God, issuing from his mother’s belly without causing her pain, was projected instantly on to the hay at the Virgin’s feet.’



EARLY CHRISTIAN           Nativity with Shepherd 4th Century Sarcophagus.  Arles

PISA                                       Porta di San Ranieri Pisa Cathedral c.1180

BONANNO DA PISA           Detail of the Nativity from above

MARGARITO da Arezzo    Altarpiece c.1250 NG

JACOPO TORRITI             Apse Mosaics Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome 1296

JACOPO TORRITI             Nativity (mosaic) Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome 1296



NICCOLO PISANO                         Pisa Baptistery Pulpit 1260

GIOVANNI PISANO                       Pisa Cathedral Pulpit 1302-11

ROME                                                Apse Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

CAVALLINI, Pietro                         Mosaic Cycle of the Virgin Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome 1296

The Nativity in Art of the14th Century


Some of the depictions of the Nativity introduce new aspects of the story from The Golden Legend. It became the primary source book for painters and sculptors in the later Medieval and early Renaissance periods.  A real knowledge, understanding and appreciation of art from 1300 to 1550 is only possible through a familiarity with The Golden Legend. The popularity of the Golden Legend ended with the Reformation but not completely as is clear from the continuance of some of the stories in paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries.  Renaissance scholars tended to attack it for being inaccurate and untrue, particularly following the Council of Trent in the middle of the 16th century.  Some attempt was made in the 19th century to reawaken interest in the work, notably by William Morris, who published a limited edition of the Caxton text in 1892. Particularly relevant to the depiction of the Nativity is the general reality and domesticity but also the introduction of the two midwives, whom Joseph goes to find to assist with the birth of Christ.  Of the two, one of them believes the baby is the Son of God, upon finding the Virgin Mary still a virgin, but the other refutes this and her arm which touched the baby withers immediately.  She then changes her mind, and the arm grows back again.


PADUA                                              Scrovegni Chapel c.1300

GIOTTO                                            Nativity c.1305

DADDI, B.                                         Triptych 1338 Berlin

DUCCIO                                            The Nativity 1308-11 New York       

MASTER BERTRAM                     Grabow Altarpiece 1379-83 Hamburg

MASTER FRANCKE                      St. Thomas à Becket Altar 1424 Hamburg   

BOHEMIAN                                     The Vysshi Brod Alterpiece c.1360 Prague

AUSTRIAN                                       Nativity 1400 Vienna

KONRAD VON SOEST                  Nativity 1403 Parish Church Bad Wildungen

NETHERLANDISH                         Folding Private Devotional Altarpiece c.1410 Antwerp

FRENCH ILLUMINATOR             Tres Belles Heures de Notre Dame du Duc de Berri c.1390 Bib. Nat. Paris


The Nativity in Italy and the North in the 15th Century


GENTILE DA FABRIANO             The Strozzi Altarpiece 1422 Uffizi Florence

ROBERT CAMPIN                          Nativity c.1425 Dijon

FRA ANGELICO                             Nativity (Cell 5) c.1440 San Marco, Florence

FRA FILIPPO LIPPI                       Cycle of the Virgin frescoes 1467-9 East End Spoleto Cathedral

ROGIER VAN DER WEYDEN      The Miraflores Altarpiece c.1440 Madrid

MEMLING                                        The Triptych of Jan Floreins c.1479 Bruges

GEERTGEN TOT SINT JINS        Night Nativity c.1465 NG

HUGO VAN DER GOES                 Portinari Altarpiece c.1478 Uffizi


GHIRLANDAIO                              Altarpiece c.1483 Sassetti Chapel, Santa Trinita, Florence


The Nativity in the Art of the 16th Century


Characteristic of developments in the 16th century in Northern Europe is the setting of the Nativity in a larger setting which includes the new fascination for nature and landscape.  Northern European painters also become fascinated with night scenes and light in darkness, which culminates at the end of the century with the chiaroscuro of the Italian artist, Caravaggio and the Dutch Caravaggisti.


GERARD DAVID                             Wings of Triptych in New York c.1505-10 The Hague

Triptych New York

BOTTICELLI                                   The Mystic Nativity 1500 NG

HIERONYMUS BOSCH                 The Adoration of the Magi Triptych 1492-8 Prado Madrid

GIORGIONE                                    Nativity c.1505 Washington

DURER                                              The Paumgartner Altarpiece c.1504 Munich

BALDUNG                                        Nativity at Night 1520 Munich

CORREGGIO                                   Night Nativity c. 1525-30 Dresden

BAROCCI, F.                                    Nativity in the Stable c.1597 Madrid


The Nativity in Art in the 17th Century


By the beginning of the 17th century fundamental changes came about in the depictions in art of the Nativity and other episodes from Christ’s early life as a result of the reforms instituted by the reforms emanating from the Council of Trent, the meeting so of which took place from 1545 and 1563.  The stories which did not come from the Bible itself were not encouraged and virtually forbidden.  The Adoration of the Shepherds and Kings became more widely depicted, partly because the former depictions of Nativity scenes would prove controversial.


CARAVAGGIO                                Adoration of the Shepherds 1609 Messina

CARAVAGGIO                                Nativity with SS Lawrence Francis 1609 (formerly) Oratorio di San Lorenzo, Palermo

HONTHORST                                  Night Nativity Uffizi

LA TOUR, G. de                               Peasant Nativity 1644 Paris

REMBRANDT                                  Adoration of the Shepherds 1646 NG

REMBRANDT                                  Night Nativity etching and drypoint


The Nativity in Art in the 19th and 20th Centuries


WILLIAM BELL SCOTT               Nativity 1872 Edinburgh

GAUGUIN, P.                                   Te Tamari No Atua 1896 Munich

FRITZ VON UHDE                         Holy Night c.1888-9 Dresden New Masters Gallery

PABLO PICASSO                            ‘Mère et Enfant’ or Maternité  1902 Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, USA

STANLEY SPENCER                     Nativity 1912 University College, London