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The Nativity of the Blessed Virgin

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. La Nascità della B. Vergine. Fr. La Naissance de la S.

Vierge. Ger. Die Geburt Maria.

This is, of course, a very important subject. It is sometimes treated apart as a separate scene ; and a series of pictures dedicated to the honor of the Virgin, and comprising only a few of the most eventful scenes in her history, generally begins with her Nativity. The primitive treatment is Greek, and, though varied in the details and the sentiment, it has never deviated much from the original motif.

St. Anna reclines on a couch covered with drapery, and a pillow under her head ; two handmaids sustain her ; a third fans her, or presents refreshments ; more in front a group of woman are busied about the newborn child. It has been the custom, I know not on what authority, to introduce neighbors and friends, who come to congratulate the parents. The whole scene thus treated is sure to come home to the bosom of the observer. The most important event in the life of a woman, her most common and yet most awful experience, is. here so treated as to be at once ennobled by its significance, and endeared by its thoroughly domestic character.

I will give some examples. 1. The first is after an unknown master of the Greco-Italian school, and referred by D'Agincourt to the thirteenth century,. but it is evidently later, and quite in the style of the Gaddi.

2. There is both dignity and simplicity in the fresco by Taddeo Gaddi. (Florence, Baroncelli chapel.) St. Anna is sitting up in bed ; an attendant pours water over her hands. In front, two women are affectionately occupied with the child, a lovely infant with a glory round its head. Three other attendants are at the foot of the bed.

3. We have next in date the elegant composition by Ghirlandajo. [Santa Maria Novella, Florence.] As Joachim and Anna were " exceedingly rich," he has surrounded them with all the luxuries of life. The scene is a chamber richly deco-rated ; a frieze of angelic boys ornaments the alcove ; St. Anna lies on a couch. Vasari says " certain women are ministering to her ; " but in Lasinio's engraving they are not to be found. In front a female attendant pours water into a vase ; two others seated hold the infant. A noble lady, habited in the elegant Florentine costume of the fifteenth century, enters with four others — all portraits, and, as is usual with Ghirlandajo, looking on without taking any part in the action. The lady in front is traditionally said to be Ginevra Benci, celebrated for her beauty.

4. The composition by Albert Dürer, in the series, "Life of the Virgin Mary," gives us an exact transcript of antique German life, quite wonderful for the homely truth of the de-lineation, but equally without the simplicity of a scriptural or the dignity of an historical scene. In an old-fashioned German chamber lies St. Anna in an old-fashioned canopied bedstead. Two women bring her a soup and something to drink, while the midwife, tired with her exertions, leans her head on the bed-stead, and has sunk to sleep. A crowd of women fill up the foreground, one of whom attends to the new-born child; others, who appear to have watched through the night, as we may suppose from the nearly extinguished candles, are intent on good cheer ; they congratulate each other ; they eat, drink, and repose themselves. It would be merely a scene of German commérage, full of nature and reality, if an angel hovering above and swinging a censer did not remind us of the sacred importance of the incident represented.

5. In the strongest possible contrast to the homely but animated conception of Albert Dürer is the grand fresco by Andrea del Sarto, in the church of the Nunziata at Florence. The incidents are nearly the same we have St. Anna reclining in her bed and attended by her women ; the nurses waiting on the lovely new-born child ; the visitors who enter to congratulate ; but all, down to the handmaidens who bring refreshments, are noble and dignified, and draped in that magnificent taste which distinguished Andrea. Angels scatter flowers from above, and, which is very uncommon, Joachim is seen, after the anxious night, reposing on a couch, Nothing in fresco can exceed the harmony and brilliancy of the coloring, and the softness of the execution. It appeared to me a master-piece as a picture. Like Ghirlandajo, Andrea has introduced portraits ; and in the Florentine lady who stands in the fore-ground we recognize the features of his worthless wife, Lucrezia, the original model of so many of his female figures that the ignoble beauty of her face has become quite familiar.

Although the Nativity of the Virgin Mary is one of the great festivals of the Roman Catholic Church, I have seldom seen it treated as a separate subject and an altar-piece. There is, however, a very remarkable example in the Belle Arti at Siena. It is a triptych inclosed in a framework elaborately carved and gilt, in the Gothic style. In the centre compartment, St. Anna lies on a rich couch covered with crimson drapery ; a graceful female presents an embroidered napkin, others enter, bringing refreshments, as usual. In front, three attendants minister to the Infant : one of them is in an attitude of admiration ; on the right, Joachim seated, with white hair and beard, receives the congratulations of a young man who seems to envy his paternity. In the compartment on the right stand St. James Major and St. Catherine; on the left, St. Bartholomew and St. Elizabeth of Hungary (?). This picture is in the hard primitive style of the fourteenth century, by an unknown painter, who must have lived before Giovanni di Paolo, but vividly colored, exquisitely finished, and full of sentiment and dramatic feeling.



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