|The Nativity of the Lord (2)
As we see at left, Bartolo di Fredi's Adoration of the Shepherds, from the second half of the 14th century, tries to compromise by depicting both a cave and a rustic canopy suggesting a stable. The ambiguous perspective makes it seem that the child and the animals are both under the canopy and within the cave entrance. After the period of this painting, the stable, often depicted as an implausibly open rustic structure, becomes the dominant space for representations of the Nativity -- for example, in the Huth Hours of the 1480s.
In the 15th century, the stable is often represented as a ruined structure, (See van der Weyden's Bladelin triptych and a polyptych from his workshop.) This trope is clearly neither biblical nor historical. It refers to the Golden Legend's account of the collapse of the Temple of Peace at the moment of the Nativity, conceptually generalized as the end of classical culture and religion and the beginning of a new era.
The Nativity and the Eucharist
In van der Weyden's work, the ruined structures are usually churches, pointing both backward to the fall of the old religion and forward to the Eucharist. Eucharistic imagery has been important in Nativity images from the beginning, and arguably derives from Luke's gospel, which mentions the manger three times in just twenty verses. A manger is a feeding-trough. The reference would be to the idea in John 6:51-58 (cached), that "I am the living bread" and salvation is not possible "except you eat the flesh of the Son of man."
In the Sancta Sanctorum Nativity the beasts push their muzzles into the manger as if to eat from it. The same arrangement appears eight centuries later in the image on this page, and in countless others. For example, see the15th-century sculpted crèche in the Metropolitan Museum, where the ass seems to be nibbling at the child's hand, and recall that the Poitiers relief discussed above has the child in what looks for all the world like a breadbasket. In a German piece of the 15th century the child is on an altar-like raised structure in the center of the stable, and the manger is even more altar-like in the image at left and in the Duccio discussed on the previous page.
In these images Christ is presented not as the cute baby of our Christmas cards but as the Body of Christ, destined for a sacrifice on the cross that will be revisited in the sacrifice of the sacred liturgy or Mass. The emphasis on sacrifice is especially emphatic in El Greco's Adoration of the Shepherds, where the inclusion of a trussed lamb identifies the child as the sacrificial "lamb of God."
The Adoration of the Christ Child
In keeping with the sublimity of the Eucharistic liturgy, the parents in the image above left are kneeling. In the earlier art a recumbent Mary lay a few feet distant from the child and even turned away from him (for example, in an 8th-century reliquary and in the Duccio discussed earlier).
We can see this repositioning of Mary even as early as Giotto's Arena Chapel Nativity (1303), where she is recumbent but turned toward the child. The two lie on an altar-like rise in the ground, beneath a stable roof that acts as a baldachin, sacralizing them and at the same time excluding mere onlookers. Architectural elements block the view of the beasts and angels, like a medieval rood screen, and the shepherds look on in quiet reverence, their hands folded below their waists. The historical event has been rendered as a liturgical moment.
This liturgical emphasis will go even further in the 15th century, as we shall see on next page. . . .
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