By Stephanie Cook

Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505-1510, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

As it is the festive season I decided to blog about the most famous nativity paintings that came out of Europe in the last approximately 800 years. There is of course a raft of paintings about this famous New Testament event and over the centuries many well known painters have applied their trade on this topic.

Nativity paintings tell the story of the birth of Jesus to Mary and Joseph. According to the biblical narrative, the baby was born to Mary who carried the son of God in her womb. There are very heavy religious overtones in the story as Jesus was to grow up to sacrifice his life for the sins of the world. Christians around the world remember his birth at Christmas time with joy and this festival has been enacted for centuries.

I will name a few famous artists here; Caravaggio, Hugo van der Goes, Sandro Botticelli, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Giotto, Duccio, Paul Gaugin, just to name a few. Some nativity scenes were paintings, some were altarpieces and typtrychs (a work of art that is divided into three sections), but possibly nearly all were commissioned by wealthy patrons who instructed the artists on how they envisaged the artwork and how they wanted it to be executed. Wealthy patrons could be aristocracy or monarchy or the church. On occasions the artists were able to paint an artwork purely for their own pleasure or for sale to the public. Of course, a picture says a thousand words and we are very influenced perhaps without knowing it by visual stories of the birth of Jesus and the events surrounding it. As I have stated before in earlier posts, the church in Europe was very powerful and influential and so artists rarely strayed from their commissioned topic.

Paul Gauguin, Baby (Nativity of Tahitian Christ), 1896, in the public domain.

Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael popularised nativity scenes amongst artists in the Renaissance period and Giorgione painted the most famous depiction of the Adoration of the Shepherds in 1510. Artists such as Titian painted topics related to the Assumption, the raising of Mary into heaven, and by researching paintings and topics an art historian can see the influence of the Catholic church’s doctrines in the subject matter depicted. By about the 19th century the influence of the church was beginning to wane such that Paul Gaugin’s The Birth of Christ has a Polynesian flavour. Of course, the most famous paintings of the Nativity have a very Eurocentric aesthetic due to the fact that Christianity was embraced in Europe and the United Kingdom and then spread out to other parts of the world with the rise of colonisation and empire building.

Modern artists such as Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali turned their creativity to Christmas cards where they could express an interest in spiritual matters and of course sell to the public. By observing their style in art, it is worthy to note how Christmas has evolved into decorating the tree, giving gifts and enjoying good food. Ordinary people now had more buying power and accumulated wealth to spend. Religion and its message was and is not as dominant in peoples minds. And of course there is the obligatory snow. Christmas has traditionally been a very northern hemisphere event but these days it is evolving in countries such as Australia where we are developing our own warm weather traditions. We have living artists such as Ken Done who signature work is bright and bold colour which can be found in the flora and fauna of our continent as well as our seas. He also sells Christmas cards!!

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!!