I wrote some time ago about my ten favourite paintings and I thought tonight I might indulge myself with ten favourite Christmas paintings. As before, the rule has to be that they are all paintings that I have actually seen, although, as before, I actually break that rule once if only in the sense that it is not a painting I have seen, yet.
It's only right before beginning that I should say a bit about where I stand religiously.
This Summer we took a very devout friend to see Orvieto Cathedral. We had been there before many times but it was her first visit. It is in fact not my very favourite Cathedral in Italy, that distinction belongs to Trani, whose stripped Romanesque style probably still resonates with my Presbyterian upbringing, but Orvieto is only a half step behind. One of the more recent Popes observed that it would surely also be transported up to Heaven on the day of judgement.
Anyway, the late Norman Buchan, just about the most convinced of atheists I have ever known, who saw the Cathedral for the first time when fighting with the 8th Army in 1944, famously observed that you could only be sure of your atheism if you had survived seeing Orvieto Cathedral.
By Norrie's test I have failed, for I remain determinedly agnostic.
So, unlike Sister Wendy*, I commend what's follows in a sort of "make up your own mind" spirit.
*The one's who's a Nun, not the one who was former leader of the Scottish Labour Party.
Fra Angelico: The Annunciation
Diocesan Museum, Cortona (Ar)
I saw this painting as recently as August. Obviously there are a choice of Fra Angelico Annunciations and the most famous are probably in San Marco in Florence. Indeed, I could accompany them with a better anecdote for we saw them on the same day, God knows how many years ago, when we shook hands with Prime Minister John Major in the Piazza della Signoria. He was there for an Anglo-Italian summit. We were there for wee Mo's birthday. Anyway, back to Cortona, and to this painting. 1430 something, early Renaissance. The genius is not in the figures, which are far from perfect, or even in the perspective of the colonnade but rather in the way it conveys the spirituality of the subject matter. Even as I write I realise the hopelessness of the task. It's like trying to provide a written review of a live band. You really need to have been there. The good news is that on this occasion it is a permanent performance.
Perugino: The Marriage of the Virgin
Musee des Beaux-Arts, Caen
You may wonder how I might have seen this when it is Caen, where it ended up after it was pinched by Napoleon, but I saw it when it was part of the big Perugino anniversary exhibition in Perugia many years back. It was for Perugia's Cathedral that it was originally painted. Indeed, it features prominently that town's Cathedral's most spectacular relic, the wedding ring of the Virgin Mary, which I take great delight in showing off to anyone who happens upon my company there. All I can say beyond about the relic is that is that if it is indeed Her ring, Our Lady must have had very fat fingers.That nonsense aside however, the inspiration comes from St Matthew and that is truly miraculous in its language.
8 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost.19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily.20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.
Let's move on.
Botticelli: The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ child.
National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
Now, if your wondering about the jump here from conception to contemplation then I would refer you to one of my earlier blogs but this being Christmas it is no time to be challenging tradition.
There are a number of reasons I have chosen this painting. The first is simply that it's a great painting in absolutely classic high Renaissance style. Google it and you're told that it is unusual to the extent that the wean is asleep. A good few new parents of my acquaintance might share that sentiment. But Our Lady wears blue and appears remarkably fit in the aftermath of childbirth (make of the word "fit" what you will) so, to that extent it is typical.
But I've also chosen it because wherever you are in Scotland (within reason) it is never more than a couple of hours away. And worth the effort to travel.
It cost a fortune to acquire this painting for Scotland. And yet if that money was to be spent on art (a wider question) then surely that money was better spent than in acquiring this than a hundred or even a thousand "Scottish" paintings on the same subject. Although that's not necessarily everybody's view.................sorry, nearly forgot my no politics promise.
Gozzoli: The Journey of the Magi
Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence
Now at this point you have to jump either to St Matthew or St Luke. For, contrary to common cultural perception, if you want the wise men and the shepherds, you cant have both, I'm going for the Tory troop first. This is just an amazing painting, spectacular in its colour, ambition and scale. But that's not the really amazing bit, that comes from the dramatis personae. For the Magi and their followers are in fact portraits of the House of Medici. We complain about the arrogance and self promotion of our current political class but even Michael Gove might have hesitated at this. The irony is that most of these people are now more famous for appearing in this painting than for anything else, although Lorenzo the Magnificent is lurking among the foot-soldiers.
Gentile da Fabriano: The Adoration of the Magi
In some ways "just" another great Renaissance painting. At some point in my art blogs however I like to talk about where to have lunch and as this is the half way point I thought that might be appropriate. In some ways it is invidious to choose a restaurant in Florence, as I've never eaten badly anywhere there, but my purely anecdotal experience is that the food is slightly more "tipico" (and cheaper) on the far side of the Arno and, having dug out my old Gamberro Rozzo guide, I remember this establishment particularly fondly. Don't have the Fiorentina though. You'll never finish it.
Ghirlandaio: The Adoration of the Shepherds
Sasseti Chapel, Santa Trinita, Florence
So anyway, back to St. Luke. Regular followers of my taste might be expecting the Caravaggio at this point, for there is Caravaggio and I've seen it. It's in Messina, as far mezzo as you can go in the Mezzogiorno. But, somehow, I don't really think of Caravaggio as a Christmas painter, Easter is much more his thing. And I really didn't like Messina. It struck me as a sort of sunny Greenock and you will appreciate that for a Paisley man it is difficult to think of a greater insult. So, instead, nonetheless spoiled for choice, I have chosen a Ghirlandaio. The "problem" with Florence is that there is so much great art, indeed Stendahl found it all just too, too much. So you can easily miss this, in Santa Trinita. If you ever go however, don't. The crowning glory of a wonderful fresco cycle by a slightly neglected genius. And a wonderful subject matter.
Botticelli: The Mystical Nativity
National Gallery, London
Now, if you.ve persevered to this point, you are entitled to "the full bhuna" and here it is. I really shouldn't have a second Botticelli but nobody does it better than this. The Holy Family; the wise men; the shepherds; more angels than could ever dance on the head of a pin; even the ox and the ass. Brilliant. If your interested in the wider iconography I strongly commend this
Duccio di Buoninsegna: The Massacre of the Innocents
Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena
Where to start. First of all to observe that this is, properly, pre-Renaissance art, painted at the start of the 14th Century. And then to observe that it is both a work of genius and (in the proper sense of the word), a terrible painting. Some years ago I started reading a much acclaimed novel about the holocaust and in the end I had to stop because it was giving me nightmares. This painting had on me the same effect, albeit on a lesser scale. It is an evil, evil subject made all the more so by the genius with which it is brought to life. The real terror is not in the murdered children or even the anguish of their mothers but rather in the banal, almost routine, way the soldiers are going about their business. It is a reminder of how, while all this great art was being created, ordinary people at least were subject to random and mindless acts of barbarism. If only we could say that, for all our comfort in the west today, elsewhere in the world that does not too often remain the case.
Giotto: The Flight into Egypt
Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Anyway, to cheerier things.
This is the painting I have not seen for, and here I make a shameful confession, I HAVE NEVER BEEN TO PADUA!
I love Giotto not for all the technical guff about his use of space and framing but rather because of the simplicity of his style. And this is a perfect example. I'm not quite sure who the other punters are but the principal players are instantly recognisable, even the donkey.
I have resolved that I will see this in reality at some point in 2013, then again I've said that many times before. Nonetheless, if anybody fancies a wee trip to the Veneto, they should get in touch.
Raphael: The Madonna della Sedia
Palazzo Pitti, Florence
And so to the final scene.
When it comes to Madonnas, in the end, I remain a Bellini man. To that extent I favour doctrine over scripture. For Bellini Madonnas have an ethereal, transcendental quality. Our Lady is always hovering between this world and the next and the troubles of this world seem almost secondary to Her. And sometimes that can make you gasp at their outright beauty, But this is a Raphael Madonna, a late Raphael. And it tells a different story, one that can still appeal to us mere agnostics. At the very end of his account of the Nativity, St Luke writes this (2.40).
40 And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.
For in the end, the Christmas Story is an adventure, and one, for the moment at least, with a happy ending.
But you also can't look at this painting without thinking also that the child could be any child and the mother could be any mother. The form requires that they look directly out of the picture but the intimacy is in the body language. The comfort of the mutual embrace but equally the impression that Mary is holding the child just a little too tight, perhaps reluctant to let him go out into the world. For this child, that may have been to a unique destiny but that sentiment is surely a more universal one. And never held more strongly than at Christmas.
It only remains for me to wish you all a very Merry Christmas (or even Buon Natale!) and to assure you that I will return to more mundane subjects after the festivities.