WHAT CHILD IS THIS? – ‘The Nativity’ by Giotto di Bondone, c 1320
The endearing image of a swaddling God in a meager manger has transformed hearts like no other. History has been torn into two by this great mystery of the Incarnation. God became man, and more, God became a baby – a helpless babe vulnerable before those He had come to save. But God’s vulnerability is rooted in the power of His unconditional love. As we draw near to the most wonderful time of the year, the Archdiocesan Heritage Museum invites you to draw nearer to God’s amazing love through a series of masterpieces.
The first painting in consideration forms a part of the grandiose fresco cycle that gorgeously embellishes the North Transept of the Lower Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. Titled the Nativity, the work was rendered by Giotto di Bondone’s workshop – one of the most powerful storytellers of the Proto-Renaissance. The art is radical – unprecedented in realism.
It is important to note that Assisi holds a very special connection with the spiritual revolution of nativity scenes. St Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in the nearby town of Greccio in 1223 to remember that God had chosen to be born among the poor. St. Francis believed and propagated the special bond between the Incarnation of God and the Holy Eucharist.
We now enter into this blissful classroom of art and faith. Mesmerizing lapis hue fills the night sky while the sweet song of angels delights the air. Divine light streams down from heaven as the silent star shines across the sky. Glory! Glory to God in the highest.
The iconography of the Nativity is derived from two sources – the Gospels of Luke and the Gospel of Pseudo – Matthew. Interestingly the Gospel of Pseudo Matthew narrates that while Joseph and his wife Mary were traveling to Bethlehem, they were stopped on the street by a beautiful boy who urged them to spend the night in the nearby cave. It is here that the first Christmas was celebrated.
The artist thus presents the Nativity in a stable (familiar to the Western audience) enclosed by a cave (familiar to the Eastern audience). The setting allures us to the figures in the foreground. A choir of twelve haloed angels surround the Mother and the Child, their hands clasped in prayer and adoration.
Notice the ox and the donkey. Representing the Old and New Testament respectively, they gaze in awe at the baby God. Observe how charmingly their ears intersect. Could this symbolize the significance of the moment i.e. the fulfillment of the Scriptures? As St. Augustine accurately affirms ‘The Old is in the New revealed, the New is in the Old concealed.’
At the heart of the crib lies the little babe, the swaddled God. The Blessed Mother, full of grace, is dressed in blue. She holds her baby with wonder as she gazes, perhaps for the very first time, into the eyes of God. How heavily does this moment weigh upon those who choose to contemplate? This is an intimate divine moment frozen in time. The cruciform halo of the Christ Child simply spells salvation.
We now step down into the terrestrial world. In the central foreground, the artist depicts the freshly bathed baby Jesus. An elderly midwife attempts to open the mouth of the swaddled infant while the younger midwife holds forward a towel as she impetuously reached to hold the Child. It is interesting to note that the tradition of wrapping the whole body of a baby is followed to date in several Indian households. It prevents the restless moving of the infant and encourages a more tranquil sleep. The artist does not shy in adding these gleeful everyday details while depicting an extraordinary birth.
To our right bleat a herd of sheep. Here, the artist includes the scene of the Annunciation to the awestruck shepherds. Notice that each of these figures is intensely Giottesque in appearance. As never before, Italian painting now witnesses holy people expressing emotions. The figures move, they are solidly three-dimensional. Their garments hang naturally and occupy space and weight. We also observe the revolutionary start to optical illusion and foreshortening in the painting.
Finally, we move to the left foreground. The simple St. Joseph is seated on the ground, his head rested on his hand in contemplation and meditation. This is our key to the painting – St. Joseph invites us, not only to celebrate Christmas but also to contemplate upon this great mystery of God-made-man. ‘What Child is this?’ – The answer to this question holds the magic of Christmas!
PS: As part of Assisi’s Advent and Christmas celebrations, enlarged illuminations of the Nativity themed frescos will be projected upon the façade of the Basilica of St Francis of Assisi from December 8, 2020, to January 6, 2021. The Franciscan friars have created a website where you can access this spectacular light show. Click the link below to enhance your experience of the Nativity of Christ.
Joynel Fernandes – Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum