December 2020. I think we are all getting pandemic weary but while we want to spread some Christmas cheer it is still a time for care and vigilance. So I thought I might post a few paintings this month looking at earlier and modern ideas of the Christmas story.
Giotto is an ideal place to start and one of his frescoes at the Lower Church at Assisi. Giotto di Bondone painted this fresco for the Assisi church in around 1304. He, more than anyone, probably set the scene for the early Italian Renaissance with these paintings where realism started to be prevalent and he employed emotional expressions rather than simple representations. Just look at the motherly love and concentration in Mary and the response from the Christ Child, and the expectation of the angels.
… and the angels. Probably more than anyone in history Giotto could paint angels!
The Nativity of Jesus is a theme we become aware of very early in our lives. As our thoughts of school nativity plays jumble our ideas, we think it is a modern idea to introduce all sorts of new animals and characters into St Luke’s original story. Woody meets Buzz Lightyear meets the velociraptors. But no – it has always been so. Look at the Ox and Ass lowing over the manger. Well you won’t find them in the Bible. They first appeared carved into Roman sarcophagi around the fourth century. And look at all the nativity paintings of the old masters with chickens, rabbits, elephants, leopards. When your teacher tried to write Bagpuss into the nativity he (she) was following a long line of Old Masters stretching back through history reinventing the story.
Anyway back to Giotto. It was fairly normal to have multiple scenes in the same piainting so note the two Mary’s and babes. As well as the frescoes at Assisi, his other great work was the Arena chapel at Padua which I was lucky enough to see last year – quite awesome. He did have a special way of depicting Joseph in his frescoes
“A very merry Christmas…” (Who wrote this in 1971?)