MARY – A MASTERPIECE: ‘The Nativity of the Virgin’ by Pietro Lorenzetti (1335 – 1342)

MARY – A MASTERPIECE: ‘The Nativity of the Virgin’ by Pietro Lorenzetti (1335 – 1342)

 The ever beautiful, the ever immaculate Virgin Mary for ages has enchanted every artist. Her tender appearance is the most beloved in Christian art. Her heavenly beauty radiates her eternal grace. On this glorious day as the heavens rejoice and the earth gladdens at her birth, we are drawn to the sleepy yet idyllic little town of Siena. Beyond its Tuscan countryside stands its magnificent Cathedral dedicated to the most Blessed Virgin Mary. It is here that we encounter one of the earliest yet one of the most brilliant depictions of her birth. It is executed by none other than the innovative Pietro Lorenzetti (1280 – 1348).

In order to truly grasp the aura of his masterpiece, we need to traverse back in time. In a world where the physical was largely ignored in favour of the heavenly and spiritual realm, Lorenzetti through his paintings embarks upon a renewed interest in human figure and space. The background of his paintings were no longer flat gold rather Lorenzetti explored earthly environments and suffused them with landscapes and architectural edifices. 

The painting in consideration is a ‘triptych’ (Greek for ‘three folds’). The scene is set in a modest yet beautiful medieval household of 14th century Siena. The occasion is far more significant and delightful. Below the starry Gothic skies lies the elderly and voluminous St. Anne. Resplendent in red and gold, she reclines on her bed admiring the little morning star, the fruit of her womb. As St. Anne dwells on the mysteries of the Most High, two young women prepare to bathe the new born. While the first pours water into the hexagonal vessel, the second cradles the infant.

The clement and loving Virgin beholds our vision in affection and benediction. She is indeed the spiritual vessel, the vessel of honour and the singular vessel of devotion. To our right we notice two more attendants walking in with a basket of fresh cloth and a jar of water to aid the bathing process. A young woman in bright red with an exquisite fan, reminiscent of the angel Gabriel, keeps company with the new mother recovering from child-birth.

The room is rendered with an aura for elegance. Notice the vaulting in the ceiling, the windows, the painted mouldings, and the tiles on the floor, the chest that serves as a foot-rest, the embroidered towels, the white sheets and the chequered blanket. Each object stands a testimony to Pietro’s absolute interest and love for proportions, distortions and details.

As we move to the left panel, we encounter the scene outside the birthing room. An elderly and expectant Joaquim, awaits in anticipation the anxious news of the birth of the Virgin.  As he bends forward, a little celestial messenger in blue, with folded arms, whispers unto him the jubilant news. Seated beside him is perhaps the patron of the work of art. The spatially separated exterior is characterized by an arch and lunette that draws us to an open courtyard or a public space of 14th century Siena.

The birth of the Blessed Virgin is the perfect note in the sea of disharmony. She is the brilliant moon that illuminates the darkest night. She steals not the glory of the sun (read: Son) rather reflects it even more purely, ever more perfectly than any other creature. Mary’s birth ushered in the dawn of salvation. The seven women within the enclosed room stand for completeness and the ‘fulfilment of time’ while the three men outside the room allude to the Trinitarian Providence. Her birth inaugurates the greatest mystery of love, the mystery of God made man!

Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557

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