This first one from about 1497 still retains much of the charm of medieval art, with its gothic architecture and lack of perspective or accurate scale. I like the little angel peeking between Mary and Joseph, and the ox on the left with a very funny expression on its face. Jesus is laid right on the ground, with only a bit of Mary’s gown and, of course, his own spiky halo to soften his bed. Note the holes in the thatch of the stable’s roof, where the beams show through. We’ll see that again.
Next up, another Book of Hours, this one from 1502. Here there’s much less background because the main figures fill the space, but there’s still a charming little framing arch. Jesus is awake and receiving visitors in the disconcertingly non-newborn way that’s so common in medieval religious art. I take the kneeling figure to be one of the wise men, and I like his mild, genuinely humble expression, as opposed to the two kings behind him, who are clearly whispering together, trying to figure out what to make of this all.
But we couldn’t leave the early period with these relatively crude efforts, so here’s Albrecht Dürer’s 1510 Nativity to push us firmly into the Renaissance. Note the perfect perspective of the stable beams (but note, too, that the stable is still inadequately thatched and looking quite ruinous.) We still have our little angel, too, but this time it looks more like it’s the one tucking Jesus in, and this time the baby has a cozy basket to be tucked into. As in all early Bible illustrations, the characters are wearing contemporary clothes, cotte and hose for the shepherds here, and note the kings’ knightly surcoats in the second piece and the observers’ hoods in the first.
I find it interesting to see what elements of the scene each artist chooses to emphasize: the meanness of the stable, the magnificence of the kings, the relationship between Mary and Joseph, the specialness of the baby, the surrounding scenery, or what.
[Pictures: The Nativity, woodcut by anonymous artist from Horae, c 1497 (Image from godecookery.com);
Nativity, metalcut by anonymous artist from Horae Beatae Mariae Virginia, cum Kalendario, 1502 (Image from University of Virginia Library);
Nativity from The Small Passion series, woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, 1510 (Image from Wikipedia).]