Some of the most sublime works of art produced in Italy during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance related to the events surrounding the nativity of Jesus. Many of the great artists of this period such as Masaccio, Duccio, Fra Angelico, and others, used their artistic talents to produce images of the Christmas story. The demand and the need for such images must have been great and many will be seen within the galleries of the Cleveland Museum of Art.
The Nativity was a well-known theme in Christian art since the early centuries of the faith. It depicts the newborn Jesus with the Virgin Mary and often with other figures, following descriptions of Christ's birth in the Gospels and Apocrypha. The number of ancillary figures in Nativity scenes could vary considerably according to time and place and the needs of the patron, though certain figures were deemed essential.
In the art of the Middle Ages, the Nativity was often a single scene appended to others such as the Annunciation, the Adoration of the Magi, the Annunciation to the Shepherds, and the Flight into Egypt to be viewed sequentially in narrative format. At other times, artists might combine these separate events into a unified scene to convey the Christmas story which gives the biblical account of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ.
In the museum's Italian Quattrocento gallery may be seen a beautiful panel painting representing the Adoration of the Magi dating to 1440-45 by Giovanni di Paolo, one of the leading painters in 15th century Siena. This small painting (about 15 x 17 inches) was once joined to others representing scenes from the life of Christ and forming a predella. A predella was a strip of small narrative paintings that ran along the base of a larger altarpiece. Our Adoration scene was formerly joined to scenes of the Annunciation and Nativity, which now survive in Washington and the Vatican. Although the main section of the altarpiece has not been identified, the Cleveland Adoration of the Magi provides a glimpse into the courtly world of 15th century Italy and the work of one of Renaissance Italy's most distinctive and highly individualized painters.
Giovanni di Paolo is first recorded in 1417 for the illumination of a manuscript for the Sienese church of San Domenico. In later years he painted several panel paintings for this same church and others in the city. Giovanni had a long career and was active from 1417 to 1482. He was influenced by many artists of his time including Gentile da Fabriano, Ambrogio Lorenzetti and Donatello. He is noted for his inventiveness and the creation of pictorial worlds bursting with charm, fairytale architecture and courtly figures. It is unknown for whom Giovanni painted his altarpiece which included Cleveland's Adoration of the Magi, though it must have been an important commission for a major church.
Throughout the 15th century, artists considerably expanded on the bare biblical account of the Magi, who, having found Jesus by following a star, lay gifts before him. Artists and their patrons were fascinated with this episode in the Christmas story and devoted unprecedented space to the portrayal of the Magi and the entourages accompanying them. Such paintings also provided opportunities to depict contemporary aristocratic life in its entire splendor. In his Adoration of the Magi, Giovanni focuses the viewer's attention on the Magi in their brocaded garments as they bend to honor the Christ Child. The Virgin, draped in a brilliant blue mantle, holds her infant who reaches forward to bless one of the Magi. Opposite this main group, the Magi's courtly entourage with their individual facial expressions and garments, as well as a retinue of animals, both ordinary and exotic, provides an exuberant visual feast for the viewer. The Adoration of the Magi with its rich detail so typical of Giovanni's work effectively brings to life the magic and wonderment of the Christmas story.
The Nativity, as an artistic subject and combined with other events forming the Christmas story, fundamentally represents the Incarnation of Christ. For Christians, the Incarnation represents the belief that Jesus took on a human body and nature and became both man and God. In the Bible its clearest teaching is in John 1:14: "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us." In the first centuries of Christianity the feast of the Epiphany, celebrating the visit of the Biblical Magi, was more important than Christmas until the 4th century.
Sacred images brought the religious experience to medieval men and women. Such images helped to bring people into contact with the divine. At Christmas in the year 1223, St. Francis, wishing to recreate the mystical atmosphere of the Nativity in Bethlehem, put on a living Nativity scene in Grecchio with the help of the local population. Everything was prepared and, that night, with authorization from Pope Honorius III, the world's first living Nativity scene was enacted. The biographer of St. Francis, Thomas of Celano, recalls that Francis stood before the manger, overwhelmed with love and filled with a wonderful happiness. For Francis, the simple celebration was meant to recall the hardships Jesus suffered even as an infant, a truly human Jesus. The living Nativity scene at Crecchio descends from a rich and vibrant tradition of interpretation of the birth of Christ by generations of medieval artists. The Adoration of the Magi by Giovanni di Paolo shows the continued relevance and charm of the Christmas story in the centuries following St. Francis. The special magic of the Christmas season was much beloved by Italians of the Renaissance and remains so today.
The Adoration of the Magi
Tempera and gold on wood panel, ca. 1440-45
Giovanni di Paolo
Italian, Siena, active 1417-1482
The Cleveland Museum of Art
Delia E. And L.E. Holden Funds 1942.536