Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Birth of the Virgin

Juan de Borgona, Birth of the Virgin
Flemish, c. 1509-1511
Toledo, Cathedral












The birth of the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, is celebrated by the Church on September 8th. No one knows the precise details of how she was born, but pious reflection on her role in the life of Jesus and of the Church has led to a number of legends growing up around her parentage and birth.
 
















Joachim and Anne

Her parents are called Joachim and Anne (or Anna or Hannah), although we do not know for sure if these are their actual names.  In many ways the legends that surround them draw on several sources in both the Old and New Testaments. The theme of barren parents made fruitful in order to produce a special child and to whom this birth is announced by a supernatural messenger occurs in several places. There is the story of Abraham and Sarah, the story of the birth of Samuel, and that of the birth of John the Baptist. It is, therefore, not surprising that the story of Anne and Joachim should have this element as well.


In the story told in the Golden Legend, Joachim, who hailed from Nazareth in Galilee, married Anne, who came from Bethlehem in Judea. Both were descendants of the house of David.




Anne and Joachim
From Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Belgian (Hainaut), c. 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, 18v


Benedikt Dreyer, Joachim and Anne
German, 1515-1520
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Sacrifice Scorned

After twenty years of childless marriage they had prayed to God that if they should have a child, they would dedicate that child to His service. At this point, a priest of the Temple rejected a sacrifice brought by Joachim on the grounds that he was childless and, therefore, did not have the standing necessary to offer acceptable sacrifice.


Joachim's Sacrifice Rejected by the Priests
Italian, c. 1304-1306
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel

This rejection so upset Joachim that, instead of returning home, he fled to the countryside and stayed with the herdsmen who tended his flocks and herds.



Giotto, Joachim Among the Herdsmen
Italian, c. 1304-1306
Padua, Arena/Scrovegni Chapel



An Angelic Message

While Joachim was in the country both he and Anne had almost identical angelic visions.

Giotto, Angel Announcing the Birth of Mary to St. Anne
Italian, 1304-1308
Padua, Scrovegni/Arena Chapel


Giotto, St. Joachim's Dream
Italian, 1304-1308
Padua, Scrovegni/Arena Chapel

Anonymous, Annunciation to Sts. Anne and Joachim
from Speculum humanae salvationis
Italian (Bologna), 1350-1400
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Arsenal 593, fol. 5
Annunciation of the Birth of Mary to St. Anne
from Fleur des victoires by Jean Mansel
French, 1450-1475
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francaise 56, fol. 6
Boccacio Boccaccino, Annunciation of the Birth of Mary to St. Joachim
Italian, ca. 1516
Cremona, Cathedral

The angel told each of them that God had heard their prayers and that they were to become parents of a child who would be "from her infancy sacred unto our Lord, and shall be full of the Holy Ghost".1


The story appears, as early as the fourteenth century, in manuscripts, and in Giotto's frescoes in the Arena Chapel in Padua, as well as in later fourteenth century Italian work.  Later, it also appears as the left wing of the Saint Anne Altarpiece by the Flemish painter Quentin Massys (or Metsys), whose career straddled the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.



Bartolo di Fredi, Annunciation to Joachim
Italian, c. 1383
Vatican City, Pinacoteca Vaticana



Quentin Metsys, Annunciation to Joachim
Flemish, c. 1507-1508
Brussels, Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique

Following the angel’s annunciation that they were to become parents at last and their joyful reunion at the Golden Gate of Jerusalem, Joachim and Anne returned home where “Anne conceived and brought forth a daughter, and named her Mary.”1



The Birth of Mary


The Birth of the Virgin was a popular subject in medieval and Renaissance art. In many ways its iconography resembles that of the birth of St. John the Baptist. It takes place in comfortable, even somewhat exalted, surroundings, for Joachim is represented as a man of substance. He has herds and flocks and, according to the Golden Legend, when he and Anne married they were sufficiently wealthy to be able to live on only one-third of their substance. The other two-thirds they divided as follows “one part was for the temple, that other they gave to the poor and pilgrims”.1


Among the artists who have pictured the birth of Mary were, first of all the manuscript illuminators whose work fired the imaginations of all those who saw their work in service books such as missals and choir graduals and in personal books such as books of hours and other prayer books.  
Mary in Her Cradle
From Orationes encomiasticae in  ss. virginem diaparem by Jacobus Kokkinobaphi
Byzantine (Constantinople) , c. 1100-1150
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Grec 1208, fol. 52
Birth of the Virgin
From an Illustrated Vita Christi
English c. 1190-1200
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS 101, fol. 21
Possibly Jacopino da Reggio, Birth of the Virgin
From a Psalter
Italian (Bologna), 13th Century
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Smith-Lesouef 21, fol. 13v
The Annunciation to Joachim and the Birth of the Virgin
From a Book of Hours
German (Bamberg), c. 1204
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 739, fol. 19v
Birth of the Virgin
From Livre d'images de Madame Marie
Flemish, c. 1285-1290
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Nouvelle acquisition francaise 16251, fol. 19

And in larger mosaics and paintings that adorned the walls of churches.

Pietro Cavallini, who was an older contemporary of Giotto, worked in both mosaic and fresco in Rome. His mosaics of the Life of the Virgin in Santa Maria in Trastevere represent the moment when the severe Byzantine style begins to change into a more lifelike and relaxed style. In this domestic scene, two maids work at bathing the baby in the foreground, while in the background, two more place food and drink on a draped bedside table for Anne, who reclines on an upholstered couch.
Pietro Cavallini, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c.1291
Rome, Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere 

Giotto’s image, from the Arena Chapel, shows several activities associated with the birth. In the foreground, two maids finish cleaning and wrapping the baby. In the background, the swaddled Mary is presented by an attendant to her mother, who lies in a curtained bed. At the left of the scene a neighbor appears at the doorway, handing a gift to one of the maids.
Giotto, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1304-1306
Padua,  Scrovegni/Arena Chapel 
Even in the north of Europe, where the memory of walls painted in the classical Roman tradition had virtually disappeared, artists still painted the scene on the walls of churches.
Birth of the Virgin
From a series of Scenes from the Life of the Virgin
German, 14th Century
Trier, Liebfrauenkirche
Other artists presented the scene on painted panels, which could be used as altarpieces or for private contemplation.
Like Giotto, his Sienese contemporary, Pietro Lorenzetti, set his vision of the birth of Mary in a sort of dissected building, so that we see interior and exterior at the same time. In Lorenzetti’s image we seem to see things from another interior room separated by columns from the main actions. The “columns” are actually the frames of the central panel and two wings of the triptych. The “room” containing the birth event fills the central panel and fills the right wing as well. The bed on which Anne reclines extends into the right wing where two attendants and a portion of the visitor who talks to the new mother in the central panel are also seen. In the left wing Joachim, who is sitting on a bench with a visitor receives word that he has become a father.


Pietro Lorenzetti, Birth of Virgin
Italian, c. 1324
Siena, Museo dell opera del Duomo


In the course of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries many other artists, both illuminators and panel/wall painters represented the scene.   Like earlier artists, they tend to focus on the effects of the birth on the prominently shown Saint Anne.  She lies in bed, being tended by serving women, who offer her water to wash and food to eat.  Meanwhile, other servants tend to the baby Mary.  They prepare a bath for her or present her, wrapped in swaddling bands, to her mother.  These paintings tell us a great deal about what birth may have been like at the time, at least in well-to-do homes.




Mary Presented to Saint Anne
From a Book of Hours
English (London), c. 1325-1350
London, British Library
MS Yates Thompson 13, fol. 58
Birth of the Virgin
From a Breviary
French (Paris), c. 1345-1355
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 75, fol. 491r
Bernardo Daddi, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1350
London, Wellcome Collection
Birth of the Virgin
From a Missal
Italian, c. 1350-1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS G 16, fol.232r
Jean le Noir, Birth of the Virgin
From Breviary of Charles V
French (Paris), c. 1364-1370
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Latin 1052, fol. 497

The Little Queen of Heaven

A few artists present the infant Mary as already the Queen of Heaven.  She is presented to or held by her mother already wearing a crown and royal robes.

Petrus de Raimbaucourt, Birth of the Virgin
From a Festal Missal
French (Amierns), 1323
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 78 D 40, fol. 109r

A Master of The Gold Scrolls Group, Birth of the Virgin
From a Missal
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1415-1425
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 374, fol. 140r

The Master of the Morgan Infancy Cycle, Birth of the Virgin
From a Book of Hours
Dutch, c. 1420
London, British Library
MS Additional 50005, fol. 5v

Adding Visitors

From the mid-fourteenth century more characters were added, increasing the sense of busyness around the primary figures of the Virgin Mary and her mother.  Additional figures, often those of well-dressed women are added, as if the relatives and neighbors had come to satisfy their curiosity about the child born to older parents.  They are often dressed in fashions contemporary with the period in which the painting was done, suggesting that they may also be flattering references to actual persons who acted as patrons of the artists.


Giovanni da Milano, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1365
Florence, Church of Santa Croce, Rinuccini Chapel
Don Silvestro de'Gherarducci, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c.1375
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art,
Accession # 21168
Birth of the Virgin
From the Breviary of Martin of Aragon
Catalan, c. 1398-1430
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Rothschild 2529, fol. 381v





In the 1430’s Paolo Uccello painted a work that served as the model for many other painters who followed.  Here, in the foreground, maids attend to the baby, while a group of elegantly clad visitors satisfy their curiosity. In the background, St. Anne is seen washing her hands in basin, while a maid pours water, and another maid brings a tray with carafes of water and wine and something to eat. At the left another maid, carrying two dishes, hurries down an outside staircase.

Paolo Uccello, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, , c.1435
Prato, Cathedral
Birth of the Virgin
From Fleur des histoires by Jean Mansel
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1450-1475
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 297, fol. 1
Jaume Mateu, Birth of the Virgin
Spanish, c. 1450
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
Master of the Life of the Virgin, Birth of the Virgin
German, c. 1470
Munich, Bayerische Staatsgem
äldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek
Master of the Life of Mary, Birth of the Virgin
German, c. 1485
Aachen, Domshatzkammer
Boccaccio Boccaccino, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1514-1515
Cremona, Cathedral
Girolamo del Pacchia, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1518
Siena, Oratory of San Bernardino

A Place for Joachim


Although he was not originally included in most of the earlier images, Joachim had occasionally been included in the subject (see images from the Livre des images de Madame Marie, the German wall painting and the painting by Pietro Lorenzetti above), he began making more regular appearances from the late fourteenth century.



Birth of the Virgin
From Vies de la vierge et du Christ
Italian (Naples), c. 1350
Paris, Bibliotheque nationale de France
MS Francais 9561, fol. 118v
Birth of the Virgin and Presentation of Mary in the Temple
From a Historien Bibel
German (Swabia), c. 1375-1400
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 268, fol. 23v
In the north of Italy, the Venetian, Michele Giambono, presented the scene in a replica of a Venetian palazzo and added Joachim as an onlooker.  


Michele Giambono, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1431-1433
Venice, Basilica di San Marco, Mascoli Chapel


In some pictures he is shown as present, but outside the actual birth room.


Master of the Osservanza, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1440
London, National Gallery
Sano di Pietro, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1448-1452
Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Museum of Art
Giovanni di Pietro, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1450-1460
Paris, Musée du Louvre
Master of the White Inscriptions, Birth of the Virgin
From Fleur des histoires by Jean Mansel
Flemish (Bruges), c. 1475-1483
London, British Library
MS Royal 18 E VI, fol. 8
Luca Signorelli, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1490
Private Collection
Jacopo Bassano the Elder, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1550
Oxford (UK), University of Oxford, Campion Hall

Moving Back


From this point on many painters began to alter the composition of the Birth of the Virgin.  Up till now the principal focus had been on Saint Anne in bed, with attendants, with Mary either nearby being cared for or actually in her arms.  Painters now began to concentrate more completely on the newborn Mary and to push the bed, with Saint Anne onboard, into the background.


Fra Carnevale (now identified as Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini) began by expanding the already busy scene and its activities still further, in one of the panels formerly known as the Barberini Panels and now divided between the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.


In the Metropolitan panel the scene of the Birth of the Virgin takes place in what can only be described as a palace, presented in intricate detail and peopled by many figures: servants, elegant visitors, huntsmen. The principal figures of Mary and Anne are almost lost in the crowd!
Fra Carnevale, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1467
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Other painters of more modest vision followed suit.


Birth of the Virgin
German, c. 1520
The Hague, Mauritshaus Museum
Ambrosius Benson, Birth of the Virgin
Flemish, c. 1528
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Michiel Coxcie, Birth of the Virgin
Flemish, Before 1550
Madrid, Museo del Prado
Gaudenzio Ferrari, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1541-1543
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera


By 1620, when Simon Vouet, a French artist living in Rome, painted his Birth of the Virgin for the Roman church of San Francesco a Ripa all inessential elements had gone. The large figures of the midwife and attendants occupy almost the entire visual space. The partial figure of St. Anne is barely visible at the upper right corner of the picture. Another figure with her may be Joachim or may be a servant. It is too difficult to see to be sure.


Simon Voet, Birth of the Virgin
French, 1620
Rome, S. Francesco a Ripa 




Introducing Angels


At the same time that artists were moving Saint Anne to the rear of their compositions, they began to introduce an angelic presence to the scene.  This was a considerable departure from previous works which had focused on the strictly human event of a birth.  What angelic presence there was appeared in episodes of the annunciation of Mary's birth to one or other of her parents which were sometimes included in the background of the birth pictures.

Introduction of angels was somewhat gradual.  A very early example comes from a Book of Hours by the French illuminator known as the Pseudo-Jacquemart de Hesdin, painted around 1410.  Here there is one angel, who is making himself (?) useful by adding water to the little bathtub in which Mary is about to be bathed.  One could almost miss noticing his wings, except for their startling scarlet outer surface, which perfectly matches and echoes the color and shape of the extended arm of the maid who is checking the temperature of the bath.


Pseudo-Jacquemart de Hesdin, Birth of the Virgin
From a Book of Hours
French (Bourges), c. 1410
Los Angeles, J. Paul Getty Museum
MS 36, fol. 71v


When Domenico Ghirlandaio painted the Life of the Virgin in the Tornabuoni Chapel in Florence’s Santa Maria Novella in the late 1480s, the principal characters, Anne and Baby Mary, appear almost as afterthoughts, upstaged by the visitors, and even by the “sculpted” putti on the chamber’s frieze. Interestingly, at the upper left corner, we see the earlier scene of a meeting between Anne and Joachim. This is also one of the earliest inclusions of "angelic" onlookers, although here they are presented as an antique (i.e., classical Roman) frieze of putti, the mischievous minor Roman deities who morphed during the Renaissance into the fully fledged Baroque "cherubs".

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1486-1490
Florence, Church of Santa Maria Novella, Tornabuoni Chapel

In Germany, Albrecht Dürer, in his 1503 Life of the Virgin, presented a crowded scene where a few of the attendants appear to have celebrated too enthusiastically. Durer adds one powerful angelic observer.
Albrecht Durer, Birth of the Virgin
from Life of the Virgin
German, 1503 
Philadelphia, Museum of Art

In 1514 Andrea del Sarto produced a more sober version of the subject. His design harks back to the Ghirlandaio. Although the distractions are fewer, the visitors are still the central figures in the composition. The angelic observers are confined to hovering near the ceiling or sitting on the bed canopy.

Andrea del Sarto, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1514
Florence, Church of Santissima Annunziata 


In the years just after the 1517 beginning of the Protestant Reformation Albrecht Altdorfer  produced a curious image where Anne’s bed and the Mary’s cradle seem to have been set up in a building that bears a striking resemblance to a church with both Gothic and Romanesque architectural features. Above their heads a crowd of celebrating angels wheel exultantly.


Albrecht Altdorfer, Birth of Virgin
German, 1520-1525
Munich,Bayerisches Staatsgemaeldesammlungen,  Alte Pinakothek
Following the upheaval caused by the Reformation, the Council of Trent was called to reform the Church. It met in three sessions between 1545 and 1563. Its decrees prepared the Church to respond effectively to the Protestant challenge, but they also eliminated much of the old cultural atmosphere. The old extra-Biblical tales and fantasy-filled legends ceased to have influence and art became more realistic.  Angels, however, persisted.


They were most often there as heavenly spectators, but they also often appeared as attendants to a heavenly apparition, accompanying Persons of the Trinity or some other celestial element.
Giovanni Battista Ricci, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1590-1600
Rome, Church of San Marcello al Corso
Alessandro Allori, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, 1595
Cortona, Church of Santa Maria Nuova
Annibale Carracci, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1598-1599
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Juan Pantoja de la Cruz, Birth of the Virgin
Spanish, 1603
Madrid, Museo del Prado
Guido Reni, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1609-1611
Rome, Palazzo del Quirinale, Cappella dell'Annunziata
Carlo Saraceni, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1616-1619
Paris, Musee du Louvre
Theodoor van Loon, Birth of the Virgin
Flemish, 1622
Scherpendeuvel, Onze-Lieve_Vrouwekerk
Jacques Stella, Birth of the Virgin
French, c. 1640-1650
Lille, Palais des Beaux-Arts
Erasmus Quellionus, Birth of the Virgin
Flemish, c. 1650-1660
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
The angels aloft in this picture carry the monogram of Mary "MRA", the first reference to Mary's name that has appeared in any of the pictures of her birth that I have seen up to this point.



Mateo Gilarte, Birth of the Virgin
Spanish, 1651
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado


Later in the 17th century the mood lightens greatly as, for the first time the birth is attended by angels. Whereas, in earlier pictures, the angelic witnesses were content to witness from above, these angels come right down to earth and participate.


In the Birth of the Virgin by the Le Nain Brothers from about 1645 three angels on the ground peer curiously at the baby or comment to each other while Joachim gazes at his new daughter. However, one small angel is taking an active role in events by warming a cloth by the fire. Saint Anne is seen in the background talking to a visitor.


The Le Nain Brothers, Birth of the Virgin
French, c. 1645
Paris, Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Paris

In Spain, Bartolomé Murillo went even further by incorporating two helpful angelic children. They have brought a basket of cloths to the servants and one angel is holding one up inspection. Meanwhile, the other angel is being investigated by a small and curious dog. Saints Anne and Joachim are seen conversing peacefully in the background.

Bartolomeo Murillo, Birth of the Virgin
Spanish, 1660
Paris, Musé du Louvre 

Later Realism and Compromise


Alongside this tendency to add angels to any picture with spiritual significance, there also ran a line of the older, more realistic imagery.


Birth of the Virgin
Flemish, c. 1460
Philadelphia, Museum of Art
Master of Petrarch's Triumphs, Birth of the Virgin
From a Book of Hours
French (Paris), c. 1500-1515
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 618, fol. 13v
Bernardino Luini. Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1520-1521
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera
Follower of Jan Rombouts, Birth of the Virgin
Dutch, c. 1520
London, National Gallery
Francesco Nappi, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1624-1630
Rome, Church of Santa Maria di Monserrato, Cappella Ferrer
Alessandro Turchi, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1631-1635
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Jusepe Leonardo, Birth of the Virgin
Catalan, c.1642
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado
Lorenzo Greuter, Birth of the Virgin
From Scenes from the History of Saints Anne and Joachim
Italian, c. 1650
Rome,Church of Santa Maria Porta Paradisi




In the latter half of the seventeenth century the naturalistic scenes began to be accompanied by the hint of the supernatural, with the addition of what is known as a "glory".  This is an area of glowing cloud that is added to the scene.  Initially, the "glory" in these naturalistic pictures did not have any figural presence added to it, remaining just cloud.
Francesco Solimena, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1690
New York, Metropolitan Museum of Art


At the end of the seventeenth century, Luca Giordano effected a compromise between the naturalistic and supernatural elements.  Having built on the increasing trend of domesticity he creates a busy scene in which servants bustle around bathing and wrapping the baby, preparing her cradle and warming her covers observed by a watchful cat and a sleeping dog.  In the meantime, Mary's parents are involved in their own roles, as Anne receives visitors from her bed (upper left corner) and Joachim observes and blesses his tiny daughter at the center.  Unheeded by the human actors, glory streams out of heaven and highlights a group of winged cherub angels who hover watchfully above Mary's head.

Luca Giordano, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1696-1698
Pasadena (CA), Norton Simon Museum

This set the tone for the artists who followed him in the eighteenth and into the nineteenth centuries.  However, from about 1700 the number of paintings of the Birth of the Virgin began to decline as aspects of Mary’s adult life received greater emphasis.


Jean Garcia de Miranda, Birth of the Virgin
Spanish, End of the 17th-Beginning of the 18th Century
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

At first glance this picture seems to be entirely naturalistic.  However, note the woman in red at the front of the picture.  Her head is tilted so that she looks up and outward, perhaps at a hidden group of angels or a glory.  Behind her at the center of the picture, the figure is that of an angel, who gazes at the newborn Mary.  So, this picture is actually one that combines the naturalistic and the supernatural.  
Cosmas Damian Asam, Birth of the Virgin
Austrian, c. 1725-1726
Kladruby (Czech Republic), Benedictine Abbey of the Assumption

Here, in spite of such naturalistic elements as the maid using a warming pan in the background, an angel (who appears to be Gabriel) directs the attention of Saint Anne to the glory in the upper left, which frames the dove of the Holy Spirit and the monogram of Mary.
Vincenzo Meucci, Birth of the Virgin
Italian, c. 1742-1750
Pistoia, Carmelite Church
Felix Auvray, Birth of the Virgin
Oil Sketch for a Painting in a Church in Nivernais
French, c. 1830
Valenciennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts
____________________________________________________
1. The Golden Legend or Lives of the Saints. Compiled by Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa, 1275. First Edition Published 1470. Englished by William Caxton, First Edition 1483, Edited by F.S. Ellis, Temple Classics, 1900 (Reprinted 1922, 1931.), Vol. 5, pages .

© M. Duffy, 2019, incorporating portions of essays posted previously as well as much new material.