Nativity: Piero del la Francesca

A friend at the National Gallery tells me that Piero della Francesca’s Nativity is one of their most popular postcards – and not only at Christmas. One can see why. Partly and paradoxically it is because of the poor condition of the panel. The shepherds now look rather sketchy and the ass has all but disappeared. The result is a rather modern, unfinished look. It also lends it an ethereal, mystical dimension which accords well with the subject matter.

What is being depicted is a vision of St Bridget of Sweden popular in the later middle ages. Bridget dreamed of a Christ-child naked on the ground before his mother, shivering with cold and raising his arms towards her. It was a northern, Swedish image which Piero has transposed to his native Italy , indeed to an identifiable hilltop close to his home town of San Sepulcro . Bridget also saw a choir of angels, singing the praises of the Word made Flesh.

All the details of Bridget’s vision are here faithfully reproduced. On what is almost a stage set (the open-fronted stable with its precarious lean-to roof is scenically rustic) the naked child raises his arms to a young Virgin in a posture of prayer and adoration. Neither child nor Virgin are like anything that Piero had previously painted. Unlike his most famous Madonna in the Montefeltro altarpiece (now in the Brera) this Mary is no statuesque matron. She is tender, young, vulnerable, and the child figure makes no allusions to the classical past: it is ungainly, new-born and strangely tragic in its isolation and vulnerability.

Then there are the angels. No wings, no haloes, with modish hairstyles, straight from a Renaissance banquet or the singing loft of a local church.

Mark Stevens

Is it the dream-like quality of this arrangement of discrete elements, or is it the unfinished ‘modernity’ of its present state which gives the picture its current popularity? Or is it the faithful representation of Bridget’s original vision: of a God made vulnerable; of a second Adam laid on the earth from which he came; and of a Virgin without sin whose painless birth gives her ample cause to adore the one whom she has brought into the world?