Merry Christmas from the Italian Art Society!

A popular subject in Italian art from the Middle Ages through the Baroque period, the birth of Jesus has been celebrated on 25 December since the early fourth century CE. The early church adopted the day of a popular pagan holiday celebrating the sun god for the feast of the Nativity. However, biblical scholars believe that Jesus was neither born in late December nor in the year 1 but rather between 4 and 2 BCE, perhaps in the spring or summer.

The iconography of the Nativity derives from the bible and apocryphal texts. We learn of the swaddling clothes and manger from Luke 2 while the ox and donkey refer to the prophesy of Isaiah 1: 3: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib…” The apocryphal Protevangelium of James places the Nativity at a cave and mentions the presence of a midwife. The fourteenth-century mystic St. Bridget of Sweden describes how Mary kneeled on the ground before her naked child, who lay on a bundle of straw and shown with divine light brighter than any other.

Federico Barocci, The Nativity, 1597, oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Caravaggio, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1609, oil on canvas, Museo Regionale, Messina

Pietro Cavallini, Nativity of Christ, 1296-1300, mosaic, Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

Duccio, Nativity (from the Maestà), 1308-11, tempera on wood, National Gallery of Art, Washington

Giotto,  Scenes from the Life of Christ: Nativity: Birth of Jesus, 1304-06, fresco, Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padua

Gentile da Fabriano, Nativity (from the Strozzi Altarpiece), 1423, tempera on wood, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Lorenzo Monaco, Nativity, 1414, tempera on wood, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Bernardo Daddi, Polyptych of San Pancrazio: Predella panel, before 1338, tempera on wood, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

Fra Angelico, Nativity, 1440-41, fresco, Cell 5, Convento di San Marco, Florence

Giorgione, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505-10, oil on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington

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