Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Nativity with St George and St Vincent Ferrer

Filippo Lippi (1406 – 8 October 1469),
The Nativity with St George and St Vincent Ferrer 1455
Oil on canvas
146 x 157 cm
Museo Civico, Prato

The iconography follows the traditional iconography inspired by St Bridget of Sweden one of the co-Patronesses of Europe

While on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1371–72, Saint Bridget had a vision of the Nativity of Christ. Her description of this vision became a popular subject in Italian painting.

The scene, including shepherds and bagpipers, as well as a splash of red and golden angels in the mountains beyond the rustic hut that serves as a stable, now seems to us to be so conventional, we may miss the striking novelty that it brought into a world so recently dominated with the very different style of High Gothic.

The vision occurred on a visit to Bethlehem on March 13, 1372. She described it thus:

"When I was present by the manger of the Lord in Bethlehem . . . I beheld a virgin of extreme beauty. . . . well wrapped in a white mantle and a delicate tunic, through which I clearly perceived her virgin body. . . .

With her was an old man of great honesty, and they brought with them an ox and an ass. These entered the cave, and the man, after having tied them to the manger, went outside and brought to the virgin a burning candle; having attached this to the wall he went outside, so that he might not be present at the birth. Then the virgin pulled off the shoes from her feet, drew off the white mantle, that enveloped her, removed the veil from her head, laying it by her side, thus remaining in her tunic alone with her beautiful golden hair falling loosely down her shoulders.

Then she produced two small linen cloths and two woollen ones, of exquisite purity and fineness, that she had brought, in which to wrap up the child who was to be born; and two other small articles with which to cover and bind his head, and these she put down beside her in order to use them in due time. .

. . And when all was thus prepared, the virgin knelt down with great veneration in an attitude of prayer, and her back was turned to the manger, but her face was lifted to heaven, towards the east. Thus with her hands extended and her eyes fixed on the sky she was standing as in ecstasy, lost in contemplation, in a rapture of divine sweetness.

And while she was standing thus in prayer, I saw the child in her womb move and suddenly in a moment she gave birth to her son, from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendour, that the sun was not comparable to it, nor did the candle, that St Joseph had put there, give any light at all, the divine light totally annihilating the material light of the candle, and so sudden and instantaneous was this way of bringing forth, that I could neither discover nor discern how, or by means of which member, she gave birth.

Verily though, all of a sudden, I saw the glorious infant lying on the ground naked and shining. His body was pure from any kind of soil and impurity. Then I heard also the singing of the angels, which was of miraculous sweetness and great beauty. . . .

When therefore the virgin felt, that she had already borne her child, she immediately worshipped him, her head bent down and her hands clasped, with great honour and reverence and said unto him, Be welcome my God, my Lord and my Son. . . . When this was done, the old man entered and prostrating himself to the floor, he wept for joy." (Hendrik Cornell. The Iconography of the Nativity of Christ. Uppsala Universitets Årsskrift. Uppsala, Sweden, 1924, pp. 11-13)

Immediately after her vision, Bridget dictated it to secretaries, who translated her account from Swedish to Latin.

The canvas was originally held in the refectory of the Convento di San Domenico in Prato.

The presence of Saint Vincent Ferrer (23 January 1350 – 5 April 1419), the Valencian Dominican missionary and logician is due to the commission by the Dominicans. It does appear out of place- almost an after thought. It is thought that Lippi did not execute this figure but rather his assistant, Fra Diamante (and perhaps afetr Lippi`s death)

St Vincent was canonised by Pope Calixtus III at the Dominican Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome, on 3 June 1455, around the time when the work was painted. No doubt the painting and the canonisation are not coincidental. It is one of the first iconographies of the newly canonised saint

The great penitential Preacher whose father was from Scotland carries a Book with the words: Timete Deum quia venit hora iudicii eius. - Fear God, because the hour of his judgement is coming.