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In this altarpiece, Pittoni has depicted both the Nativity (the birth of Christ and his adoration) and the Trinity (God the Father, Christ and the Holy Spirit) – an unusual, but not unique, combination. It was painted around 1740, though we don‘t know for which church it was commissioned.
Saint Joseph is slumped in a chair sleeping deeply, while the Virgin Mary kneels in adoration of the Christ Child: together they form the ’Earthly Trinity‘. Above, among glowing clouds, we see God the Father and the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove hovering above the infant Christ, making up the ’Heavenly Trinity'.
Colour distinguishes the heavenly realm from the earthly: Pittoni has contrasted the strong blues and greys of the draperies worn by the Virgin and Joseph with the pale tones of God and the angel. The heavenly realm is filled with ethereal light that falls on the holy family and the rustic, straw-filled manger.
In this deeply devotional altarpiece Pittoni has used life-size figures to depict both the Nativity (the birth of Christ and his adoration) and the Trinity. It was painted in around 1740, although we don‘t know for which church it was commissioned.
Saint Joseph sits slumped in a chair, asleep, his limp right arm and foot positioned just in front of us. The Virgin Mary kneels in adoration of the Christ Child, who is lying in a manger of hay. She gazes at him tenderly, with one hand held gently to her chest and the other picking up a white cloth to cover the wriggling infant. These three figures together form the ’Earthly Trinity‘. Above them, among glowing clouds, we see God the Father, one hand resting on a celestial globe, accompanied by cherubs and an angel. The Holy Ghost in the form of a white dove hovers over Christ, who belongs to both the earthly and heavenly trinities. A celestial glow fills the top half of the painting, illuminating Christ, Mary and the rustic straw-filled manger; the same light catches Joseph’s sandalled foot.
Colour distinguishes the heavenly realm from the earthly: Pittoni has contrasted the strong blues and greys of the draperies worn by the Virgin and Joseph with the pale tones of God and the angel. The composition is both compact and dramatic, full of incident and movement. The energetic cherubs perched on a cloud in the background give a sense of depth and space to the picture.
This picture is unusual, though not unique, in combining the Nativity and the Trinity. A similar, though not identical, subject was painted by Murillo in his The Heavenly and Earthly Trinities, also in the National Gallery’s collection. Pittoni’s picture was cleaned in 1959 and until then, the part of the painting containing the ’Heavenly Trinity' had been concealed by overpaint. This was added during the nineteenth century, perhaps an attempt to make the subject more recognisable and appealing to prospective buyers.
Pittoni was active in Venice during the eighteenth century and received commissions from tourists and Venetians. He drew heavily on the work of many Venetian painters, including Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, to whom this painting was wrongly attributed during the nineteenth century. This source of inspiration can be seen in the tonality of the work, and in its beautiful colours, which were typically blended and layered to achieve a glowing richness. Pittoni also often replicated Giovanni Battista Piazzetta’s style in his own pictures, and the way he has depicted the Virgin’s head here shows a similarity to those of Piazzetta’s female saints.
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