The Nativity by Petrus Christus

The Nativity by Petrus Christus
This depiction of the Nativity by Petrus Christus (large version here) strikes me as one of the more interesting and unusual interpretations of the event.

We view the scene through a framing trompe l’oeil arch, likely inspired by the influence of Rogier van der Wyden’s similar compositions, such as his Miraflores Altarpiece (and interesting to compare to this “framed” walk-through composition by Antonello da Messina). The arch portrays a series of Biblical events, including stories from Genesis, and places the current event in the context of fall and redemption.

The figures, including four seemingly disinterested onlookers behind the ruined stable wall, are dressed in contemporary Flemish costume, and are viewed against a Flemish town, albeit with domed structures from Bethlehem and set amid rolling hills that might be neither location.

The event is attended by four angels, presented about one third human size, with strikingly bird-like wings, and dressed as sub-ministers of a 15th Century Northern European Mass.

The baby Jesus lies doll-like on the ground in the folds of Mary’s garments, central to everyone’s gaze, but otherwise not emphasized by the composition.

It’s interesting to compare the painting with Christus’ earlier versions of the Nativity and Annunciation here, here and here.

Petrus Christus was associated with early oil painting master Jan van Eyck, and may have succeeded him as master of his studio when he died in 1441. There is discussion, however, about whether he was actually Van Eyck’s student, as he shows as much influence from painters like Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden.

This painting of the Nativity is in the collection of the National Gallery in Washington.


5 Replies to “The Nativity by Petrus Christus”

  1. That is an unusual Nativity! The position of the infant Christ is a first that I’ve seen.

    The anachronism of the clothing has always fascinated me. Painting someone in modern clothes now would look so crass, yet these Flemish clothes seem visually appropriate. Likely due to how much we see from the Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque.

    I’d like to take this opportunity near the end of the calendar year to thank you again for being an inspiration to me, and to so many others. Charley, you are bursting with talent and a force to be reckoned with as a blogger.

    All the best to you and yours!

  2. Thanks, Glendon, both for your thoughts on the painting and your kind words about Lines and Colors.

    I agree, it would seem disconcerting to see a contemporary version of the Nativity set against small town America and populated by people in clothes from The Gap, but they seemed to think it appropriate at the time. I think we also accept it from our current point of view because history compresses time, and we see a closer relation to ancient events than we do to our own time.

    Other readers can check out Glendon Mellow’s blog The Flying Trilobite, which he subtitles “Art in Awe of Science”.

  3. I would to purpose that the background figures are possibly direct patrons of the church so they are included in the painting. Those figures might also be representative of some other biblical reference.

    As for period clothing does anyone, even today, know what the people of biblical times wore? Assuming you don’t know how would you paint them? And how would you paint them in the 15th century? These are the kind of questions my art history teacher posed when I was a student.

    Anyway Lines and Colors has been my weekly destination for a couple of years and I thank you for all your hard work, happy holidays.

    OH, and that placement of the baby Jesus is way disturbing.

  4. Thanks for the thoughts, Mark.

    Yeah, I agree that painters in the 15th Century wouldn’t have reliable knowledge of what people wore in biblical times, but it still strikes me as odd that they would portray them in contemporary clothes, like us picturing Joseph in jeans and a t-shirt.

    Thanks for the nice words about Lines and Colors.

    Other readers can check out Mark’s Freelance Illustration Sketchblog.

Comments are closed.