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This painting shows the traditional Christmas story: the infant Christ, lying in the manger, is watched over by Mary, Joseph and adoring angels, while an ox and donkey peer out of the darkness behind. Through the crumbling back wall we see shepherds and their sheep up on the hills huddled around a fire, their dog beside them. They gaze up in awe at the shining angel in the sky above them.
The divine glow from the Christ Child is a pocket of light in the darkness, creating a sense of intimacy and awe which draws us into the scene. The idea of the night scene lit in this way was not Geertgen’s, but was based on two lost night-time Nativity scenes by Hugo van der Goes.
This painting tells the traditional Christmas story – how Christ was born in a stable, and his mother ‘laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn’ (Luke 2: 7). The infant Christ, lying in the manger, is watched over by Mary, Joseph and adoring angels, while an ox and donkey peer out of the darkness behind.
The Bible goes on to describe how shepherds were watching their flocks at night when ‘an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round them’ (Luke 2: 9). Through the crumbling back wall of the stable we see them, huddled around a fire, their dog beside them. They gaze up in awe at the shining angel. One shields his eyes with his red cloak; another kneels, throwing up his hands in wonder.
The scene in the stable is lit by the divine glow of the Christ Child; the rays would once have been more visible. This idea comes from the writings of the popular fourteenth-century mystic Saint Bridget of Sweden, who described the birth of Christ: ’she gave birth to her son, from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendour, that the sun was not comparable to it, nor did the candle that Saint Joseph had put there, give any light at all, the divine light totally annihilating the material light of the candle.'
This picture has almost universally been attributed to Geertgen tot Sint Jans. It is closest in style to paintings normally assigned to the later years of his short career and was possibly painted in about 1490. The idea of the night scene lit in this way was not Geertgen’s – it was based on two lost night-time Nativity scenes by Hugo van der Goes.
This small painting was probably made for private devotional use. Although less complex and ambitious than the lost work by van der Goes, it is perhaps more touching. The divine glow from the infant Christ is a pocket of light in the darkness, creating a sense of intimacy and awe which draws us into the scene. The artist has carefully differentiated the different sources of light: the child in the manger, the fire and the angel.
The painting was once more colourful, as well as larger. It has darkened so much it is hard to make out some of the details, like the basket hanging from the beam in the top right corner or the sheaf of corn leaning against the back wall. It was cut down to its present size in 1901 and was damaged by fire in 1904 while it was in a private collection in Berlin. The extreme heat may have made the paint bubble, and caused the many tiny round losses, visible in the Virgin’s forehead for example. Colours have changed: the Virgin’s dress and mantle were once different shades of blue but now look black, as does the sky.
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Divine and earthly light illuminate Geertgen tot Sint Jans's tranquil night-time scene. Find out more here: https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/picture-of-the-month