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The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel
Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255–1318),
“Jesus was born in a humble stable, into a poor family. Simple shepherds were the first witnesses to this event. In this poverty heaven’s glory was made manifest. The Church never tires of singing the glory of this night.”
These words from the Catechism (525) focus our gaze on the mystery of that holy night when our Advent preparations culminate in the great Christmas feast. With faith-filled joy the Church joins her voice to the simple shepherds and joyful angels whose songs of praise welcomed the newborn Jesus, Son of God and Light of the world. Inviting wonder before the mystery of the Incarnation is an exquisite altarpiece panel titled The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. This early 14th-century masterpiece is a stirring visual homily on the meaning of Christmas. The work is attributed to Duccio di Buoninsegna, father of Sienese painting, credited as one of those who moved Italian painting from the hieratic representations of Byzantine art to realism and representation.
Telling the story of salvation in paint
Completed by Duccio between 1308 and 1311, this exquisite panel was once part of one of the most important treasures of Western painting: the impressive Maestà altarpiece that visually dominated Siena’s cathedral for two centuries. A large enthroned Madonna and Child surrounded by angels and saints covered the central panel. Then, around that prominent image of the Virgin Mother and Child, the artist went on to tell the story of salvation with his paintbrush. Duccio decorated both sides of this masterpiece with numerous small predella panels covered with exquisite depictions of Gospel moments from the lives of Christ and the Virgin Mary. One of those panels that brought the Gospel narratives to life in color, line, and form was this Nativity scene. Painting her thus brought Mary into the heart of Duccio’s life, and he asked her to bring peace to his beloved Siena. By the time he completed this commission in 1311, he had become known for his fervent prayer to the Mother of God.
Advent waiting now fulfilled
“The coming of God’s Son to earth is an event of such immensity that God willed to prepare for III it over centuries” (CCC 522). In that light, Duccio sets the birth of Jesus within salvation history by framing the sacred moment with two prophets who announce the coming Messiah. The longings of the people of Israel for salvation, echoed in our own Advent hopes, are now fulfilled perfectly in this time of grace. For God definitively extends his hand of divine mercy by sending his own Son into the world. In the Incarnation, human history finds its deepest meaning and destiny. On the right stands the prophet Ezekiel, slightly turned toward the unfolding scene. The scroll that unfurls from his hand heralds the future birth of a Savior. On the left stands Isaiah, with his prophetic words also in hand. Inscribed on his scroll is the inspired text foretelling the long-awaited fulfillment of God’s promise of salvation—Therefore the Lord himself will give you this sign: the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel (Is 7:14).
Christ the Savior is born
Duccio tells the familiar Christmas story in vibrant colors, with slender forms and a blend of solemn and exuberant emotions, appropriate to the wondrous event of the Incarnation. At the center of the composition is the Virgin Mother of God, who has just given birth to her divine Son. Her scale is twice that of any figure in the scene, highlighting her unique role in the divine plan of salvation. Mary is dressed in red and blue garments, colors that point to her Son’s divinity and humanity united in his divine person. She gathers her blue robe around her while reclining on a red cushion as she looks with tender motherly love at her newborn Son, Jesus. The Virgin Mother’s large scale and her recumbent pose evoke traditional icons of the Nativity. Both Mother and Child are enclosed in a cave, an element also drawn from Eastern iconography. The only hospitality that the world offers this Mother and Child is a bare, cold cave, warmed simply by the breath of the ox and ass who watch attentively over them. One can feel the spiritual warmth of this holy scene in spite of the harsh coldness of its material poverty. In the lower section, Duccio includes two midwives, who wash the infant Jesus, lending another ordinary human touch to this extraordinary heavenly scene. Sitting close to the Virgin Mary is Saint Joseph. To this saintly guardian of the Redeemer was given the singular blessing of being in closest proximity to the mystery of Christ’s birth. So Duccio places Joseph close to Mary, deep in wonder and awe as host of angels gathers around the Virgin Mother and Child. Some angels raise their eyes to heaven with joyful melodies of praise to God. Other angels lean over the roof curiously, straining to catch a glimpse of the divine Child. Still other angels announce to the simple shepherds the good news of salvation that is at hand.
O come let us adore him, Christ the Lord!
God’s desire to reconcile all of creation to himself is fulfilled perfectly in the birth of Jesus. In the face of this greatest of divine gifts, the Incarnation, what is the most appropriate human response? How are we to respond to the mystery of Christmas? Each of the figures in Duccio’s luminous Nativity scene radiates faith, hope, and love in the presence of Christ’s birth. God takes human flesh in his Son Jesus so that, in him, we might be clothed once again with the dignity of the children of God. For this marvelous exchange made possible by the Incarnation of God in human history our fitting response in faith is to join the chorus of Duccio’s angels in a hymn of Christmas praise—“O come, let us adore him, Christ, the Lord!”
■ Jem Sullivan
Writer on art, catechesis, and the New Evangelization
The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel (1308–1311),
Duccio di Buoninsegna (c. 1255–1318),
The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
A Nativity in Black and Blue
a Flemish Book of Hours, late 15th century. (1047),
The decorative border that frames this miniature of the Nativity is as remarkable esthetically as it is rich in significance. Made of a blue simultaneously deep and joyous, it lends its hue to the starry canopy that served as a stage for the choir of angelic hosts on Christmas night above Bethlehem. Against this backdrop run scrolls of pomegranate tendrils bearing fruits and flowers: they foreshadow the life ahead for this Newborn lying naked in the hay.
The pomegranate’s evergreen foliage signifies his immortality. Its brilliant orange flower reveals the association in his life and in his death of the yellow gold of divinity and the blood-red of sacrifice. Its fruit, which contains exactly as many grains (613) as commandments given by God to Moses in the Pentateuch, symbolizes the fact that Jesus comes not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and, in his new commandment, to confer on it his eternal perfection. The tightly packed grains of the pomegranate, united by blood within one round rind, also reveal that the body of this Newborn will become the Body of Christ, that is, the Church militant on earth, bound together by the same faith and the same love; the roundness of the rind signifying the communion of saints who are blessed for all eternity. These scrolls are executed in vermeil, a new substance made from gold plate on a silver base, the gold signifying divinity and the polished silver humanity, inasmuch as it is the mirror of the God who created it in his image. Jesus is true God and true man.
Viewed in its overall effect, this Nativity seems to emerge from the sea. The background is as black as the abyss of death wherein reigns Leviathan, the beast of the Apocalypse come to earth to enslave humanity. The sky, Mary’s gown, and Joseph’s stole are again like water, but blue here, the symbol of hope, for it is the promise of the life-giving waters of baptism. Only the gold of divinity emanating from the newborn gilds this world with warmth and light, our world, rendered cold and dark by the reign of sin. From the plenitude of this light shining in the darkness, we shall receive grace upon grace, and, should we welcome it, our lives will not take long to regain their colors, warm as love.
The Nativity, Illumination from a Flemish Book of Hours, late 15th century.
© Granger Coll. NY / Aurimages.