Jacques Daret, The Nativity, c. 1434-45. Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
If you have ever enjoyed the obligation of seeing your child, or a friend’s child, or relative’s child – or anybody’s child for that matter – in a school Nativity play (now curiously abbreviated to ‘their Nativity’ as if you were about to watch their birth), you may have wondered at the twists and turns of the narrative that call for quite so many random characters, creatures, and I suspect even inanimate objects to pay homage beside the manger. ‘Jesus wants me for a snowflake’ must be the song on every with-it teacher’s lips. But trust me, whatever you have seen is nothing compared to what the medieval mind was able to imagine. Dragons? Animated trees? Toys coming to life? Jesus being grounded? Trust me, it’s all out there, and we’ll see all of these in Week 3 of my series The Childhood of Christ which starts this Monday, 28 November – the first Monday in Advent – with Until the Nativity. Of course, there will also be the usual wholesome ox and ass, even if they don’t get a mention in the gospels. Today’s painting includes more than one such apocryphal story, although I’m only going to tell you one of them for now…
I wanted to look at this painting because it is one of the few known works attributable to Jacques Daret. Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of him: although a surviving account book from the 15th century lists many of his paintings, only four survive, all panels from an altarpiece originally made for the Abbey of St Vaast in Arras, Flanders (now France). Daret was born in Tournai, Flanders (now Belgium), and studied with Robert Campin, who had settled there in the first decade of the 15th Century. Daret was a member of Campin’s studio for 15 years, and coincided with another student who is named in the archives as Rogelet de la Pasture. If you were to translate that in to what is presumably old Flemish, that would be Rogier van der Weyden, a more familiar name, I imagine, and another great artist who was a native of Tournai. And why am I interested in Jacques Daret? Well, I was in Tournai last week, and I’ll be going again next… Sadly they don’t have any of his works there: two are in Berlin, one is in Paris and today’s is in Madrid.
As foretold, it shows the Nativity, or, to be more precise, The Nativity of Christ. He is lying on the floor, waving his arms and legs and looking up at his mother, who can be identified easily thanks to the traditional blue cloak, which spreads around her as she kneels on the ground, and from her immaculate complexion, and flowing blonde hair (I know, this is supposed to take place in the Middle East, but fair-skinned and blonde she is – more about that another time, probably Monday, although I must have discussed it elsewhere already). To the left are the ox and ass in their stall, and beams of light come down from God the Father up in Heaven. If these are the only things in the painting you can identify, don’t worry – we’ll get there. There are two more women, who I really doubt have ever made it into any school Nativity play, and a wealthy-looking man. They are all gathered in and around a rickety-looking stable, apparently made of re-purposed wood and rough-hewn branches which prop up a decaying roof, attached at the back to a crumbling wall. At the top of the painting is a smattering of angels, but we’ll come back to them. I want to focus on Jesus.
He has been left on the ground, without as much as a bottle of hay to keep him warm and comfortable. As if the idea of placing him in a manger – a food trough – was not enough to show God’s humility in taking on human form, here he is completely exposed and vulnerable. This exposure is only enhanced by the way in which he is surrounded by expensive-looking fabrics, with the hem of Mary’s cloak meandering to the left, the purple skirts folded over the knees of the woman at the back, and on the right, a rich array of different, costly materials. In case we’d missed who this is, golden beams of light – the glow of sanctity – emanate from him in every direction, not unlike the beams of light that reach down to us from his Father in Heaven. The woman on the right has a red brocade dress woven with gold thread, and a fur-lined overskirt of green brocade. She also has two belts – a wide purple one around the overskirt, both ends of which hang behind her, the longer of the two falling to the bottom of the painting. It terminates in a simple knot, and has gold studs, or embroidery, as a ‘simple’ decoration. The red dress is gathered at the waist by what looks like a black and gold plaited belt, and there is sheathed knife tucked under her left knee. Golden, pearl encrusted cuffs circle the ends of the short sleeves of her red dress. From these emerge fuller blue sleeves. Her hands hang limply, their light colour and the angle of the fingers directing our attention towards the similarly pale baby. He looks up at his mother, as I have said, but what is his expression? Slight surprise, and concern, perhaps? There is a little questioning as well. ‘What, exactly, is going on?’ he could be asking. As for the waving arms and legs – well, they’re not, really, are they? They are placed very specifically. One foot over the other, and two hands raised, with both palms clearly visible. This looks like a non-verbal means of communication, an explanation of his purpose here on earth. In approximately thirty-three years’ time nails will be driven through those hands and feet in almost exactly that configuration. We are always being reminded of where the story is going. Flat on the bare ground, he could equally uncomfortably be lying on an altar as a sacrificial victim.
The focus is so intently on Jesus. Mary and the two women look at him almost demurely, whereas the Ox and the Ass stare with determined focus – as if to show that they can. They recognise their maker, which is why, as we shall see on Monday, they are there in the first place – even if they aren’t mentioned in the gospels. The only ‘creature’ whose gaze is not certain is the man, who may well be looking timidly towards Mary. He is, as you have probably realised, Joseph, but unlike most Josephs you will have seen. He is imagined not as a poor carpenter, but a successful merchant: he would be more than capable of making, or having made, and selling you for a good price, a far more sturdy stable. He wears a purple robe under a lined, brown cloak, together with a fashionable black hat. This he has removed, as a sign that he is in a holy place, and a specifically Christian one at that (were he Jewish, which of course he was, he would have been required to put one on). He also has a finely decorated purse attached to his belt, green, with embroidered ribbons appliqued in diagonals – a sure sign of wealth – and he holds a candle, which seems to have little effect – but more of that on Monday, too.
As far as the stable is concerned, this is not the product of a skilled workman: we are making do with what is available. The notches and peg holes in the vertical on the left suggest that it has been used for something before, while the support on the right is little more than the trunk of a tree felled young (are we looking forward to the Crucifixion again, and Jesus’s untimely demise?). It is cracked, with some branches sawn off (one of which, about a third of the way up, was sawn off some time before the tree was felled, allowing more growth to accumulate around the stump), and some bark still clinging on, a marvel of naturalistic detail. There are also two smaller, rough-hewn branches which have been trimmed, bevelled, and attached to keep it upright. Notice how the three women, as well as the ox and the ass, are all framed neatly between the two uprights, whereas Joseph is standing just to the right – effectively ‘outside’ this humble shelter.
And the two unknown women? Well, they are the midwives, clearly. You can’t have a birth without midwives, even if they weren’t mentioned in the bible. However, the fact that they weren’t there is a result of the way in which the bible was edited. Some of the gospels didn’t make the final cut (and when we hear some of the stories they tell in Week 3 of The Childhood of Christ you will realise why). The midwives are mentioned in at least one of them, the so-called ‘Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew’ (that’s a link to the whole thing, if you want to read it all). In chapter 13 Joseph goes to look for a midwife, but the miraculous birth occurs while he is gone. He returns with not one but two, who he introduces to Mary. The first, Zelomi, goes in to the stable (which I think we must imagine as being more enclosed than this one), examines Mary, and realises that, even after the birth, let alone after conception, she is still a Virgin, causing her to cry out in amazement. This brings the second midwife, Salome, into the room:
And hearing these words, Salome said: Allow me to handle thee, and prove whether Zelomi have spoken the truth. And the blessed Mary allowed her to handle her. And when she had withdrawn her hand from handling her, it dried up, and through excess of pain she began to weep bitterly, and to be in great distress, crying out, and saying: O Lord God, Thou knowest that I have always feared Thee, and that without recompense I have cared for all the poor; I have taken nothing from the widow and the orphan, and the needy have I not sent empty away. And, behold, I am made wretched because of mine unbelief, since without a cause I wished to try Thy virgin.
And while she was thus speaking, there stood by her a young man in shining garments, saying: Go to the child, and adore Him, and touch Him with thy hand, and He will heal thee, because He is the Saviour of the world, and of all that hope in Him. And she went to the child with haste, and adored Him, and touched the fringe of the cloths in which He was wrapped, and instantly her hand was cured. And going forth, she began to cry aloud, and to tell the wonderful things which she had seen, and which she had suffered, and how she had been cured; so that many through her statements believed.
This is where we are in the story. Zelomi is at the back with hands which are both expressive and beautifully articulated. Salome’s withered limbs droop down towards Jesus, about to touch him and be healed.
I am now beginning to wonder whether Jesus is really looking at his Mother, or rather, perhaps, to the longest beam of light which crosses Zelomi’s green sleeve, and red overskirt, reaching as far as its incredibly plush fur lining. This, the longest ray, is pointing directly towards Jesus – and maybe it is this that the new-born is fixing – the radiance of God the Father. Our course will end in Week 4 with Jesus’s first biblical miracle, turning water into wine. But already, in the apocryphal texts, minutes after his birth, the miracles are happening – and Jesus could well be looking up to Heaven in the knowledge that they won’t stop any time soon. No peace for the perfect.
Meanwhile, at the top of the painting, we continue to look ahead. In the distance, on the far right, an angel is announcing the great tidings of glad joy to the shepherds (we’ll talk about them in Week 2), while more angels – and birds – gather on the roof. This angel is happy to point to the baby Jesus, while holding his voluminous and magnificently flowing robes. Just to the left is a goldfinch, a frequently-seen symbol of the Passion of Christ. It was believed that goldfinches ate thorns, and that one went to eat from the Crown of Thorns. A drop of blood fell from the Saviour’s forehead, and left a permanent red stain, which you can see to this day around the Goldfinch’s beak. At the top are two swallows – barn swallows, presumably (or stable swallows, I suppose). Migration was not fully understood until we travelled far enough and fast enough and could track where the birds went in the winter. But it was clear to the medieval mind that they went away and came back again. Jesus did the same, but far more quickly – and so the swallow became a symbol of his death and resurrection.
At the other end of the roof there are three more angels in even fuller and more swirling robes. They are on the verge of singing. I say ‘on the verge’ as they appear to be holding their song sheet (such scrolls are often are inscribed with the words ‘Gloria in excelsis Deo’, although I can’t see anything here) – and yet their mouths are shut. There are also two things I don’t remember seeing before in paintings of the Nativity. I’m sure I have, I just don’t remember. First – icicles, hanging from the beams and the thatch. In the deep mid-winter frosty winds made moan, even in the Middle East. Second, at the top left, a great tit: yellow breast with a black stripe running down the centre, and a black head with white cheeks. It’s unmistakeable. And it’s there because – well, because it wanted to join in, maybe. I see them a lot in my garden, and I bet Jacques Daret did too. I can’t for the life of me imagine what it’s symbolism could be, simply because it doesn’t occur often enough to be commented on. For us now, though, it’s a symbol, as much as anything, of the observational skills of the artist, and the growing interest in naturalistic detail; of looking at the world around us and painting things which we know are there. And if we know that the great tit is real – then the angels must be too. Its presence helps us to believe. The tit is looking in to the centre of the picture, as is the goldfinch and at least one of the swallows. Even if they are not looking down, their gaze focusses us inwards, towards their maker. Not only that, but the beak of the goldfinch is directly above the forehead of the baby on to which – in thirty-three years’ time – a crown of thorns will be driven. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.