The Nativity
Later images

Later images moved away from narrative and offered a more devotional, mystical response to the Nativity, culminating in pictures known as  The Adoration of the Christ Child, which I will discuss here.  It is a move from the simple, bucolic world of Luke's shepherds and mangers to the grander, more symbolic world of Matthew's Magi and heavenly portents.

  The cave location hadn't entirely vanished, as can be seen in  Botticelli's Mystic Nativity painting below, but by and large the stable, simple or grandiose, had taken over.  The midwives disappeared, and other characters populated the pictures; the Magi, which I'll discuss here, and devotional saints. In many cases, the scene became wildly overpopulated - everyone just had to be there.

Botticelli: Adoration of the Magi (Yes, they're in there somewhere.) 
National Gallery, London

Girolamo de Treviso the Younger
Natrional Gallery, London

Francesco di Giorgio Martini
San Domenico, Siena

Caravaggio: Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence
Location: Unknown. The Mafia pinched it in 1969

Ruined buildings

Classical ruins are a familiar setting for nativities. The usual explanation is that these symbolise the forthcoming ending of paganism, but the Golden legend offers a more specific interpretation.

  For because that the world was in so great peace, the Romans had done made a temple which was named the Temple of Peace, in which they counselled with Apollo to know how long it should stand and endure. Apollo answered to them that, it should stand as long till a maid had brought forth and borne a child. And therefore they did do write on the portal of the Temple: Lo! this is the temple of peace that ever shall endure. For they supposed well that a maid might never bear Bethlehem, there may ye find him wrapt in clouts. But in the very night when Mary bore Christ, the temple crumbled to the ground, and on its site the church of Santa Maria Nuova stands today.
 Unfortunately, The Golden legend has got it all wrong. The temple of Peace was built by Vespasian in 75 A.D. Santa Maria Nuovo (Now
Santa Francesca Romana) was in fact constructed  on top of the temple of Venus and Rome, which was  by Hadrian in the 130s. All much too late for the Nativity.
  An odd entry to the Golden Legend, though; so Apollo was real then?

the Golden Legend had another axe to grind. It tells us that:

  . . . it happed this night that all the sodomites that did sin against nature were dead and extinct; for God hated so much this sin, that he might not suffer that nature human, which he had taken, were delivered to so great shame.

  So, goodwill toward men, then, but not quite of all of them.

Botticelli: Mystic Nativity
National Gallery, London

  Few paintings demonstrate the change from simple storytelling to mystical symbolism as well as Botticelli's Mystic Nativity. 
  The Greek text at the top of the painting is an element almost unheard of in art - the artist is giving us a meditation on his own work. A translation is: 

This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, according to the eleventh chapter of Saint John, in the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the devil for three-and-a-half years; then he shall be bound in the twelfth chapter and we shall see him buried as in this picture.

  The painting thus has two themes: the nativity of Christ, and his second coming as predicted in the book of Revelation.
  So why the return to the cave image? Because it is familiar from images of Christ's tomb in paintings of Christ's resurrection. 
 1490  - 1500 was a 'time of tribulation' in Florence and Italy as a whole, with a French invasion, the exile of Piero Medici, and above all the apocalyptic preaching of Savanarola, under whose spell Botticelli had fallen. By 1498The Florentines had finally had enough of him: the fiery preacher was tortured and burnt at the stake. His predictions, though, were still in the mind of Botticelli: 'The half time after the time' comes from Revelation 12 v14, and was interpreted at the time as 1500 - the date of the apocalypse, and the devils are waiting at the bottom of the picture to drag sinners down to Hell. 

  Well, like all of these predictions so far, it didn't happen. But it is an uncomfortable, apocalyptic painting. The angels at the top may offer us hope, but the jagged, twisting tortured ground below tells a different story. 

On to some further thoughts on images of the Nativity                                                 Nativity Index

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