In this painting intended for private devotion, Fra Bartolommeo emphasises the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth. The Virgin kneels on the ground before the newborn Christ, while barefoot Saint Joseph watches over the baby. The makeshift stable made from the ruins of a classical building stands behind them, outside the city walls of Bethlehem. In the background, an artist and his assistants paint a fresco above the city gate while young Saint John the Baptist walks away from Bethlehem, having escaped Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents.
The composition is related to Fra Bartolommeo’s Holy Family (Borghese Gallery, Rome) of about 1495. The unusual pose of the Virgin is derived from Leonardo’s work, and a variation of Fra Bartolommeo’s Holy Family (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan), of about 1504. However, the rich palette and landscape full of incidental detail reveal the influence of Venetian art.
In this painting intended for private devotion, Fra Bartolommeo emphasises the humble circumstances of Christ’s birth. The Virgin, in a simple robe and veil, kneels on the ground before the newborn Christ, her arms crossed over her chest in reverence. The baby lies naked on a cloth over a simple bolster, while barefoot Saint Joseph watches over him. The makeshift stable made from the ruins of a classical building stands behind them, outside the city walls of Bethlehem.
The small figure of the infant Saint John the Baptist walking away from the city gate refers to a legend that, having escaped Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents in Bethlehem, he fled into the wilderness where he lived as a hermit, protected by the Archangel Uriel. The Baptist was the patron saint of Florence and images of the Virgin and Child with Saint John seem to have been especially popular there. The charming detail of an artist and his assistants painting a fresco above the city gate was repeated in Giuliano Bugiardini’s Rape of Dinah (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna).
The picture was probably commissioned by Alamanno Salviati (1459–1510) for his son Averardo (1489–1553) as it is mentioned in 1509 in the account book of the San Marco convent in Florence, where Fra Bartolommeo lived and worked. Payment for the picture went to both Fra Bartolommeo and Mariotto Albertinelli (1474–1515), as they were working in partnership at the time, however the technique, handling and colouring all suggest that it was painted by Fra Bartolommeo himself between 1508 and 1510.
The composition is related to Fra Bartolommeo’s Holy Family (Borghese Gallery, Rome) of about 1495, while the unusual pose of the Virgin, with her hands crossed over her chest, is a motif derived from Leonardo, and a variation of Fra Bartolommeo’s Holy Family (Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan), probably dating from around 1504. However, his approach to composition and colouring here is influenced by his visit to Venice in the spring of 1508; the abundant landscape, small background figures going about their daily business and the interest in the rendering of light suggest that Fra Bartolommeo knew the work of Venetian painters, especially Giovanni Bellini and Giorgione.
The veiled, chaste gentleness of mood and the softened forms are typical of Fra Bartolommeo, while the subtle chiaroscuro reveals the impact of Leonardo’s painting technique. The monumental form of Saint Joseph reflects the influence of Michelangelo, but it seems that his facial features are those of Fra Bartolommeo himself, as we know his appearance from a drawing in Munich.
There are two sheets of drawings for the Virgin, a forceful black chalk study for Saint Joseph and two studies for the Christ Child in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Fra Bartolommeo did not tend to improvise during painting but to work from a full-size cartoon which was transferred to the gesso-primed surface of the canvas or panel by stylus tracing or incision. However, here he made a number of significant changes freehand, particularly in the positioning of Christ’s limbs.
Judging by the number of contemporary and later copies, Fra Bartolommeo’s composition soon became popular. The version closest to the National Gallery’s painting is a panel of almost the same size in the Pinacoteca Tosio Martinengo, Brescia.
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