By Anne Leader
Today (September 8) is the Feast Day of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, one of four celebrated throughout the church year. (The others are the Purification, 2 February; the Annunciation, 25 March; and the Assumption, 15 August.) Accounts differ as to whether she was born in Bethlehem, nearby Sephoris, or Jerusalem, but the church has celebrated her birthday on 8 September since the 6th century.
Numerous Italian artists have represented the event. The traditional iconography shows St. Anne (Anna) resting on her bed and attended by women who bring her food and drink. Other women prepare the baby’s first bath, often testing the water to assure its temperature is just right.
Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna, had waited long for a child, and suffered great shame in their community for their inability to produce offspring. In addition to the Nativity itself, Marian narrative imagery includes Joachim’s Expulsion from the Temple, the Annunciation to Anna, and the Meeting at the Golden Gate.
Pietro Cavallini, Nativity of the Virgin, 1296-1300, mosaic, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome
Pietro Lorenzetti, The Birth of Mary, 1342, tempera on panel, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena
Andrea Orcagna, Birth of the Virgin, Tabernacle, 1359, marble and mosaic, Orsanmichele, Florence
Giotto di Bondone, Scenes from the Life of Joachim: 1. Expulsion from the Temple; 3. Annunciation to St Anne; 6. Meeting of Joachim and Anna, 1304-06, fresco, Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua
Giovanni da Milano, Birth of the Virgin, 1365, fresco, Rinuccini Chapel, Santa Croce, Florence
Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of Mary, 1486-90, fresco, Cappella Tornabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence
Boccaccio Boccaccino, Birth of Mary, 1514-15, fresco, Cathedral, Cremona
Domenico Beccafumi, Birth of the Virgin, 1540-43, oil on panel, Pinacoteca, Siena