Friday, December 11, 2009

The Nativity at Night

Title: The Nativity at Night

Artist: Geertgen tot Sint Jans

Medium: Oil on oak

Size: 34 x 25 cm

Date: c. 1484-90

Location: National Gallery, London.

Luke 2:7 records that Mary placed her newborn son in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

The manger was a feeding trough for animals; sometimes these may have been built into the floor. The word traditionally translated as “Inn may also mean “home” or “Guest room”; with all Joseph’s scattered family members returning home at once, it is easier for Mary to bear and care for a newborn in a livestock shelter outside.

Critics have cited this painting as one of the most engaging and convincing early treatments of the Nativity as a night scene. The brilliant light in the foreground comes from the Christ Child in the crib. It illuminates the figure of the Virgin, who bends forward, hands joined in prayer, Saint Joseph in the background, and the figures of the delighted small angels to the left. The radiance of the angel announcing the birth to the shepherds on the distant hillside provides another contrast between darkness and divine light. A third and lesser source of light comes from the shepherds' fire.

The idea of the infant Christ illuminating the Nativity scene comes from the writings of the 14th-century Saint Bridget of Sweden. She wrote that in her visions the light of the new-born child was so bright 'that the sun was not comparable to it'. A century later, the interest of artists such as Geertgen in depicting naturalistically the contrasts of extreme light and shade served to heighten the sense of the miraculous birth.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c. 1465 – c. 1495), also known as Geertgen van Haarlem, Gerrit van Haarlem, Gerrit, Gerritsz, Gheertgen, Geerrit, Gheerrit, or any other diminutive form of Gerald, was an Early Netherlandish painter from the northern Low Countries in the Holy Roman Empire. No contemporary documentation for his life has been traced, and the earliest published account of his life and work is from 1604. Geertgen lived in the city of Haarlem, where he was attached to the house of the Knights of Saint John, thus his last name "tot Sint Jans" was derived from the order's name and means "unto Saint John"

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