This scene shows the holy family – the Virgin Mary, Joseph and Jesus Christ – just after Christ’s birth in a stable. The artist has set the scene in surroundings familiar to contemporary viewers: the towers of a town that resembles fifteenth-century Tuscany are visible in the distance. On the hillside are two shepherds; one looks up towards golden rays that have appeared in the night sky. According to the Gospel of Luke, an angel appeared to them to announce Christ’s birth.
This picture comes from the predella (the lowest part) of an altarpiece made for Santi Giusto e Clemente in Faltugnano, Tuscany. Two other predella panels, both showing stories from the lives of the church’s patron saints, Giusto and Clemente, are now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Only one altarpiece has been ascribed with certainty to the Master of the Castello Nativity – the one made for Santi Giusto e Clemente in Faltugnano, just north of the Tuscan town of Prato (and now in the Museo dell'opera del Duomo, Prato). Our picture comes from the predella of that altarpiece.
The scene is set just outside a simple structure; its thatched roof is propped up at one corner with the branch of a tree. This is the stable where, according to the Bible, Christ was born. We see the Virgin Mary and Joseph kneeling in adoration before the infant Christ, and an ox and donkey have made room for the child. Unusually for a painting showing the birth and adoration of Christ there’s a maid in the stable drying a cloth before a fire – the flames make the wall glow pink.
The artist has set the scene in surroundings that would have been familiar to viewers at the time: the architecture of the town in the distance resembles that of fifteenth-century Tuscany. On the hillside are two shepherds; one looks up towards golden rays that have appeared in the night sky. This detail is a reference to a scene described in the Gospel of Luke, when the Archangel Gabriel appeared to shepherds to announce Christ’s birth.
Much of the picture is quite plain and simple – the landscape and stable in particular – but the artist has paid careful attention to certain parts, such as the buckle on the donkey’s saddle and the fine transparent veil swaddling the baby and covering the Virgin Mary’s hands. This detail might be a reference to the moment in church liturgy when the priest covers his hands to handle sacred objects, and so here is a sign of Christ’s divinity.
The altarpiece that this panel comes from showed the Virgin Mary enthroned with the infant Christ on her knee, with the church’s patron saints, Giusto and Clemente, standing to her left and right. Two other predella panels, both showing stories from the lives of Saints Giusto and Clemente, are now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Our picture, which is the same height but slightly longer, was probably the central image, placed between them. The artist was probably a pupil of Fra Filippo Lippi and it has been suggested that the altarpiece might have been made in Lippi’s workshop and designed by Lippi himself.
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