Tuesday, December 24, 2013

MWA XX: David's Nativity

Although I've never had the opportunity to study in-depth "Northern Renaissance art" (i.e. paintings by Netherlandish painters such as Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling), like others I find them to be some of the most beautiful paintings in the history of art. The crisp linearity and precision of draftsmanship is complemented by rich jewel-like colors, making so many of these paintings among the most precious in European art. Many of the works are altarpieces and Catholic in nature, as they pre-date the spread of the Protestant Reformation and thus the removal of Christian imagery (idolatry as it was called) in favor of the Word (Bible) alone. The Metropolitan Museum of Art holds a number of these works, largely because they were collected by Gilded Age industrialists at a time when a number of these early painters were barely known. Gerard David (ca. 1455-1523), born in the Netherlands and active in the now-Belgian city of Bruges, was but one of these highly-respected and talented painters of their day.

His scenes, such as this work from the Met, The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard, ca. 1510-15, focus on traditional Christian imagery, but often reveal the secrets of his own interest in landscape painting. Just look in this detail over the shoulder of Joseph and you can see the shepherds peering through the window with an exquisite landscape stretching into the distance. The birth of Christ is the subject of the triptych, but the angels positioned beside the open window together echo the connections between God and nature. It's a powerful image, with many layers of meaning. According to the curators, "despite the joyful moment depicted, the figures all wear somber expressions, foreshadowing Christ's eventual suffering and sacrifice." The saints on the two end panels are Jerome and Leonard, but the donors kneeling before them remain unidentified, reminding us how much more we have to learn about the history and reception of these gems in Western painting. Gerard David himself was lost to history and only rediscovered in the mid-1800s. For more about his extensive life and work, see the Met's Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.

And to all my bklynbiblio readers, MERRY CHRISTMAS!!

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