In time for Christmas, the National Gallery has put on a special display of its newly restored Nativity by Piero Della Francesca. The artist died in 1492 and the worked remained with his family until the 1860s. Acquired by the gallery for the nation in 1874, Prime Minister Disraeli described it at the time as ‘a picture of the most rare and interesting character’.

Led by the NG’s Senior Restorer Jill Dunkerton and with panel work by Britta New, a number of new revelations about the early 1480s artwork have emerged. It was long thought to be unfinished due to lack of shadows, it is now believed to represent the Nativity through St Bridget of Sweden’s vision of Christ’s birth. Previously framed and on display as an altarpiece, the new hanging gives the piece its own carved walnut frame, of almost exact dimensions it is likely it dates from the same time and area. It was most likely a grand, domestic painting and may even been created by Piero for his own home.

‘It has been a real privilege but also a great responsibility,’ said Jill Dunkerton. ‘Every decision, every tiny brush stroke of retouching, affects our perception of its appearance and meaning, possibly for many generations. I hope that visitors will now be able to experience its quiet magic.’ Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery, added: ‘Piero’s Nativity is a beautiful and profound meditation on the Christmas story. Over five centuries after Piero’s lifetime, we can still marvel at his artistic vision, skill and sheer inventiveness.’

Find out more at, including a behind the scenes’ video.

Christmas Message


Creator of the stars of night, thy people’s everlasting light,

Jesu, Redeemer save us all, and hear Thy servants when they call.


So begins the wonderful seventh-century hymn Conditor alme siderum, appointed for Vespers in Advent,  in the familiar translation by J.M. Neale. The second verse runs:


Thou, grieving at the ancient curse should doom to death a universe,

Hast found the medicine, full of grace, to save and heal a ruined race.


Neale poetically chooses the English word ‘ruined’ to translate the Latin adjective ‘languidum,’ from the noun ‘languidus.’ This can mean faint or weak, or sick, ill or unwell (Neale’s translation brings this sense out), but also sluggish, inert, inactive or listless.

Cold days and dark nights can make us sluggish and inactive. Living daily, as we do, in the shadow of instability and conflict abroad and economic uncertainty and hardship at home can also make us retreat into our shells, fearful to look out. The uncertain note sounded by our church in response to cultural pressures, more hesitant than confident (let alone triumphant), and consequent anxiety about the deeper erosion of her sacramental character, provides yet further temptation to look inwards and cover our ears to the gentle but persistent call of Our Lord upon our lives.

Advent, the Scriptures and the liturgical texts tell us, is the time to wake up; to be alert, attentive and watchful for the One who is to come. It is the season of hope, which we know is, for Christians, not a facile optimism but one of the foundational virtues of the Christian life. 

At Christmas, we celebrate the Lord’s first coming, in weakness and humility, to share every challenge and every limitation of our mortal life. Advent teaches us always to gather round the crib not just in the starlight of a Bethlehem night, but in the far greater light of the Lord’s return in glory. Hence we can celebrate the Nativity not just as an exercise in pious sentimentality, but in the assurance of Christ’s ultimate victory over all sin, sickness and yes, sluggishness and listlessness too. 


T.S. Eliot, in his little known poem The Cultivation of Christmas Trees, beautifully makes a personal joy from this calling to celebrate Christmas in the light of the fulfilment of all things in Christ at the end of time. The poem concludes:


So that before the end, the eightieth Christmas

(By ‘eightieth’ meaning whichever is last)

The accumulated memories of annual emotion

May be concentrated into a great joy

Which shall also be a great fear, as on the occasion

When fear came upon every soul:

Because the beginning shall remind us of the end

And the first coming of the second coming.


All at New Directions wish our readers a merry and blessed Christmas, and a hope-filled New Year.


+Jonathan Fulham


Bishop Jonathan is Chairman of the New
Directions Editorial Board. February 2023 sees the tenth anniversary of his translation to the See of Fulham — for which we send him many congratulations.