|The Nativity of the Lord (3)
In the Fra Angelico Nativity at left, from about 1440, the human figures all kneel to the naked child, who is the source of the light that illuminates the scene. These details reflect the influence of St. Bridget of Sweden, whose vision of the Nativity strongly influenced the art of the 15th and 16th centuries. Before Bridget the baby was always swaddled, as specified in Luke (cached). But after Bridget the art shows what she saw in her vision, a child naked and luminous, in the moment just after his birth.
The birth itself was an experience of luminosity: Bridget says the emergence of the child was as if a great light had shone through Mary's body.
Emphasizing this luminosity, Bridget wrote of a candle brought by Joseph but outshone by the light from the child, a detail often recorded in the images (example).
Other details also follow the vision. Mary's hands are clasped and her head bowed, and the angels and saints adopt the same posture. This will be the model for Nativities in the 15th and 16th centuries.
In Fra Angelico the cross on the baby's halo is not from Bridget, nor is it common in Nativities, but it is fully consistent with the liturgical, eucharistic meaning of the nativity event.
Bridget's vision and the specific changes to which it led were thus only part of a general movement in the Gothic toward a more liturgical representation of the Nativity and an emphasis on the "Body of Christ."
One element that was generally discarded as the art moved in this direction was the presence of the two midwives mentioned in the Protevangelium and Pseudo-Matthew. These works had used the midwives as expert witnesses to Mary's continuing virginity during and after the birth of Jesus. One of the women, like St. Thomas, doubtfully uses her finger to check the mother out, and nearly loses her hand as a result. Rather than render this crude episode, the representational tradition simply has the midwives wash the baby in a tub, their presence reminding the viewer of the story in the texts. (Examples: Duccio's Nativity and a "baptismal" treatment of the subject from the 12th century.)
The shepherds remained in the picture because they could be accommodated to the new liturgical emphasis in the Gothic period, as we shall see in the next page. . . .