In Venetian art

Nativity or Christmas, some commonplaces

Nativity is one of those great religious motives in Christianity that apparently gets less interest in art than you expect. You will find a lot of paintings or bas-reliefs representing the arrival of the Magi, or the Flight into Egypt… in other words, the rest of the story.

On the other hand, considering the importance of Christmas festivity, it is quite surprising to read in the official gospels just few lines dedicated to the birth of Jesus.

The story in the gospels

The evangelist St Matthew dedicates a few words, mentioning Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the town of David. In the Gospel after St Luke there are more details, mentioning the baby was wrapped in cloths. Mary then placed him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke mentions shepherds that lived in the fields nearby. An angel appeared to them and told them not to be afraid, he was the Messiah, and invited them to go and adore him.

It’s not surprising St Luke’s story is richer in details. According to the tradition, he was a painter, and you know how painters are. He certainly could not be but attentive while depicting the scene. But still no ox and no donkey, nor a description of the barn or cave. One knows how things go. Storytelling, apocryphal Gospels, as St James’, in other words one tends to spin a story, imagine the one concerning the birth of Jesus.

So if an artist was asked to paint the nativity of Jesus, the result was a mixture of the story the Gospels, both official and apocryphal, would narrate and the profane tradition, later sources or special requests of the donors. For painters, it must have felt frustrating… or enticing.

Nativity in St Mark’s Basilica in Venice

This is a bas-relief at the Porta dei Fiori, one of the doors of St Mark’s basilica, dating back to the 13th century. Surrounded by a festoon of vineyards, where some birds pick the grapes, both parents look terribly worn out. I bet. Traveling with a pregnant lady and no room available in the inn. And then the baby arrives. It sounds like a bad travel plan. 

St Mark’s Basilica, Porta dei Fiori, Venice, 13th Century

Mary holds her head with her left hand, sitting close to her son, holding his head, patiently. Joseph on the right, is quite sleepy and I am pretty sure, were it not for that stick, he would probably slide down on the floor. And what about the baby? In each Nativity, there are many “spoilers”, indicating how the story ends. Jesus is already an adult, almost as if he had just been taken down from the cross, not exactly “sleeping”. In fact, that does not look like a manger at all. Can you see the lambs’ heads popping out of the stone bed below?

A sacred conversation in the Church of Santa Maria dei Carmini in Venice

In the Church so called Santa Maria dei Carmini in Dorsoduro you can admire a Nativity painted by Cima da Conegliano in 1509. The scene is pretty articulate. 

Cima da Conegliano, Nativity, Church of Santa Maria dei Carmini, Venice, 1509

We see the mountains on the back, a fortified city with its crenellated wall, a couple of shepherds that play the pipe or sleep without taking care of their sheeps. 

Eventually, we fall in love with an incredibly colourful scene in the foreground. Very busy. The donor, Giovanni Calbo, kneels in the centre of the scene, with crossed arms, praying, in front of Jesus. Joseph is very awake, this time, and makes sure Calbo looks at the baby on the manger. Difficult for Calbo not to get distracted. Mary is shining in beauty, in her blue, yellow and red dress, with her lovely face wrapped in a gleaming white robe. And then behind her, how can’t you notice the archangel Raphael with young Tobia and the dog? Do you remember their story? Tobia is the young boy who, with the support of Raphael, helps his father to recover his sight. Giovanni Calbo looks at Tobia, too.

Detail from Cima da Conegliano, Nativity, Church of Santa Maria dei Carmini, Venice, 1509

Behind Calbo, there’s another young boy, leaning forward. I love how the light coming from the left illuminates the tip of his nose, peeping above Joseph’s arm so he can also see the “sleeping” baby Jesus. 

More personal stories related to Christmas

Finally on the left, you see St Catherine turning her face away from St Helen with the Cross. Helen does not look exactly lovely, but seems sincerely sorry for Catherine. Well, Catherine is there to remind us of Calbo’s wife, Caterina Calbo, who had died a couple of years before the painting was commissioned. And we all quite clearly feel what that man, humbly kneeling, with his face in the shade, would like to tell us. Documents report Calbo had no sons, just a daughter. Maybe he lost a son or maybe he would have loved having a baby son, for the continuity of his family lineage. And then his wife died.

One last thing this nativity tells us. Calbo was a “drapier”, he produced and sold precious fabrics. As a homage to his dead wife and maybe to a lost son we don’t know about, both St Catherine and Tobia are dressed with the most exquisite fabrics and fashion of the time. A little bit of sales marketing, why not.

Surprise and wonder in the Nativity at the church of San Giobbe in Venice

In another church in Venice, San Giobbe, once featuring paintings by Giovanni Bellini, Vittore Carpaccio among others, you can admire the Nativity by Giovan Girolamo Salvoldo, dated back to 1540. 

Giovan Girolamo Savoldo, Nativity, Church of San Giobbe, Venice, 1540

I love this painting because of the simplicity of both Joseph and Mary, that could easily be portraits of real, poor people, certainly not aristocratic. The man on the left joins in the prayer, respectfully. I love the way the light overwhelms the scene coming from different directions. Its rich colours. 

But, above all, the two men in the window on the back, especially the shorter one, that seems to ask the other one, “What’s up? Please, do tell me”. We are privileged, we can see what happens, Jesus is born, but we also share that question… do we understand what we see? Do we know what it means? Ah, by the way, again that spoiler: the cold, dreary stone where Joseph leans predicts the future passion of Jesus. Just in case you started feeling cheerful 🙂

The adoration of the shepherds in the church of San Zaccaria: the triumph of light over darkness

There are also famous paintings by Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto showing the birth of Jesus, but I would like to end with a less-known one. 

In the church of San Zaccaria, once the church of the Benedictine Convent, you will certainly notice the Nativity by Antonio Balestra, dated back to 1704-1708. A virtuoso of the chiaroscuro, Balestra set his nativity accompanied by the adoration of the shepherds in the night. 

Antonio Balestra, The adoration of the shepherds, Church of San Zaccaria, Venice, 1704-1708

If you wondered what extreme glow you can reach with a brush, enjoy this scene! The angel’s and the shepherds’ cheeks reveal there is a very warm temperature in that cave and don’t worry about the “spoiler”, it is there, but hiding, maybe we can almost forget it. And so we are left free to soak in Mary’s love, feeling the joy and the deep sense of hope for a better future the birth of a baby can bring. Exactly what one needs in these days.

by Luisella Romeo
registered tourist guide in Venice, Italy

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