Tag Archive: Robert Campin


I figured since I hadn’t yet posted on anything related to Christmas (and it is 2 weeks away), now was as good a time as any. I picked the Nativity, or the Birth of Jesus Christ, as my theme. For information about how it might’ve been at the actual birth of Jesus, told from the viewpoint of a modern-day midwife, check out this website. The Nativity has been pictured in art since at least the 4th century, though it didn’t become really popular until St. Francis set up the first Nativity scene in 1223. According to this webpage, “Francis decided that he wanted to make the extraordinary experiences of the first Christmas more accessible to ordinary people. The scene featured a wax figure of the infant Jesus, costumed people playing the roles of Mary and Joseph, and the live donkey and ox that were loaned to Francis. Local shepherds watched over their sheep in nearby fields, just as shepherds in Bethlehem had watched over sheep on the first Christmas, when the sky suddenly filled with angels who announced Christ’s birth to them.” Turns out, Francis also helped to introduce the world to Christmas carols, which he created around the same time as the Nativity scene. Some more modern “artistic” examples can be seen here in the form of Star Wars figurines and here with Mr. Bean. Ok not really artistic, but just fun.

Now to the artwork. I’d like to start with Robert Campin’s Birth of Christ. As I’ve said before in this post, I love Campin’s work. His paintings are so detailed with such rich colors, as exemplified by the gorgeous gold and white folded robe of Mary and the bright robes of the angels. The subject matter comes from Luke 2:7, but more specifically from St. Brigit. According to this website,  “[St. Brigit] claimed Mary described to her how she kneeled in prayer, the shining child before her. Joseph was said to be holding a candle, and angels were singing. The two women on the right are midwifes. According to an apocryphal book, Joseph had summoned them to assist his wife, as was the custom where he was from.” It is interesting to note that Mary still looks pregnant in this painting, but is dressed in virginal white to show her purity. Baby Jesus looks small and shriveled, as if he had literally just been born. Joseph looks older than he is usually painted.  This article tells us that the two midwives were called “Zebel and Salome. The ‘Golden Legend’ tells that the one probably whose face we do not see, Zebel, recognized Mary’s virginity despite the birth. The other, Salome, the prouder one, refused to believe this. So her hand withered. An angel told her to touch the child and she was healed and recovered her hand completely. Both these women are splendidly dressed, as if she were women of a court,” perhaps the Burgundian court where the painting was originally commissioned. The shepherds are behind Joseph, inside the crumbling barn. Aside from the Nativity scene, the background landscape is also excellently done with great detail, with a long windy road leading to the town.

Robert Campin, The Birth of Jesus, c. 1425-30

Robert Campin - The Birth of Christ

The next painting I would like to look at is Sandro Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity. I must admit, I had never seen this one before I went to research this post today. Though I know he has done some religious artwork, most of what he is famous for are his Greek mythology or Roman literature paintings. This painting, however, is unique. Though the main subject is the Nativity,  it also illustrates the Book of Revelations and the Last Judgement, as signified by the demons that appear in the left, center and right bottom portions of the painting. As this blog post says,

“Botticelli seeks to reinforce the contemplation of not only Christ’s arrival, but also his eventual return as outlined in the Book of Revelation.The question needs to be asked – what had happened to Botticelli in 1490s [for him to go from light playful Greek mythological scenes to this overtly religious and fairly heavy-handed work]? The answer is simple – the Dominican Monk, Girolamo Savonarola. The delightful angels encircling towards the heavens in Mystic Nativity are wonderfully executed. Time had faded the inscriptions on many of the ribbons they carried – obscuring the direct link between this painting and Savonarola’s teachings.Subsequent infra-red analysis of the angels’ ribbons revealed the inscriptions – they corresponded exactly with the 12 mystical properties as delivered in Savonarola’s sermon. Hence, ‘Mystic Nativity’ was not just a devotional work – it was also a statement of Botticelli’s personal allegiance to Savonarola and his teachings.” I won’t go more into Savonarola, but the rest of the blog post is very fascinating, if you’re interested in the topic.

I will continue with more analysis of the painting. The Virgin and Child are the most important part of the painting, therefore Botticelli made them the largest and right smack in the center. As the National Gallery of London (where the painting currently resides) explains, “The cave replaces the stable, reminding us of the tomb in which Christ was later buried.” An ox and a donkey are depicted behind the Virgin Mary, though they were not mentioned in the New Testament. The donkey reminds us of the one that Jesus later used to ride into Jerusalem before his crucifixion. Joseph, to the left of baby Jesus, is depicted very old and seems to almost be at a loss as to what he should be doing. The Three Wise Men are on the left of Joseph and are wearing olive wreaths because “of an edict from a recent ruler of Florence. Savonarola had declared that ‘Christ alone was king of the Florentine Republic.’ There are three angels on the roof, dressed in white, green and red, which may represent the three Cardinal Virtues: faith, hope and charity. They wear crowns of olive, and two of them carry olive branches. They are holding an open book, which could possibly be the Book of Revelations.” The bottom part of the painting has three angels embracing three men wearing olive wreaths and proclaiming “Peace on Earth Goodwill to Men.” The angels and men embracing each other is usually only shown in Last Judgement paintings.

Sandro Botticelli, Mystic Nativity, c. 1500

Sandro Botticelli - Mystic Nativity

Now to go a totally different route, I’d like to discuss the Post-Impressionist work Bebe (The Nativity) by Paul Gauguin. It is definitely a very different take on the subject. I found a poem inspired by the painting on this site. Gauguin lived in Tahiti from March 1891-June 1893 and again from July 1895 – Sept 1901. He had decided to go there, according to this website (translated from the French)”to discover and cultivate his primitivism.” Gaugin used his teenage mistress as the inspiration for the wet nurse/Virgin Mary. I’m not sure which one she is, to be honest. There’s not a lot of documentation on the painting that I could find anyways and the stuff I could find was conflicting, so I figure it is up to your own personal interpretation. She is holding the infant Jesus with his small green halo. His mother lies exhausted on the other side of the room, having just given birth to him. It could be that the woman in the top of the painting is Mary before and the woman at the bottom is Mary after the birth. A green-winged angel watches over the infant while his mother recuperates. The whole scene is set in a stable, complete with cows and pigs. There is no Joseph in this painting like in most versions. The bright yellows and oranges remind me of Van Gogh, and it has been proven that the two artists influenced each other after living together for two years in Southern France. The greens and purples seem to be colors that Gauguin frequently used while painting pictures in Tahiti.

Paul Gauguin, Bebe (The Nativity), 1896

Paul Gaugin - Bebe (The Nativity)

The last piece that I wanted to discuss was Nativity by Brian Kershisnik. Never seen it before today but I liked this very captivating interpretation of the scene. The original is apparently an enormous 17 feet long  x 7 feet high! I agree with another woman who said that she liked this because the Holy Family looked the most natural. Mary looks exhausted but happy as she is breastfeeding her baby Jesus. The two midwives, as referenced in the Campin painting above, are waiting on the Virgin. Joseph is looking much younger, but just as equally blown away and overwhelmed by the entire situation. A host of angels crowd over them to see the baby and some, on the right end, look as though they are singing. There is also a dog with a puppy watching all the action. According to this press release from BYU ‘s Museum of Art (where the painting is currently residing), “Kershisnik said the painting was inspired by his work teaching art students at BYU. He wanted the angels to be the main piece of the painting to show a bigger picture of Christ’s birth. Mark Magleby, Director of the BYU Museum of Art, said people respond to Nativity “because they recognize the authenticity of the experience of childbirth in the holy family and the realities of motherhood across the animal spectrum. He said people also relate to the angels because we see that they are each individuals and not just a big host of angels that all mesh together.”

Brian Kershisnik - Nativity

Another great artwork is the Nativity window located at Saint Stanislaus College, Tullaberg in Ireland, created by stained glass Irish artist Evie Hone. For more information on her, check out this webpage.

I know it’s been ages since I’ve done one of these posts, and I apologize. Part of the reason was because they take me forever to compose and my attention span has been a bit wonky lately due to taking care of my child at home, trying to find a job and keeping afloat financially. I’ve been thinking about this post for a while now, as I have hinted at in previous posts. The Northern Renaissance is my favorite time for art and was the first period that I got interested in when I decided to study art history. It is roughly the time between the 1400’s – 1600’s AD/CE. When I was 16, I had the opportunity to go to Europe for the first time since I was born. One of the coolest things I got to see while I was over there was at St. Bavo Cathedral in Ghent, Belgium. It is an unassuming church but has, as I later found out, one of the most famous works of art of all time there. There was a separate chapel in the cathedral, where for a small fee, you could see The Ghent Altarpiece. Also known as The Mystic Lamb or The Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, the painting was completed in 1432 by Jan Van Eyck and his brother Hubert. The group I was traveling with, high schoolers and a couple of adult chaperones, had seen a couple of churches before so I knew what altarpieces were. I figured, what the heck. I was blown away when I walked inside, as the altarpiece took up the entire room, literally floor to ceiling. I ended up getting a poster of it, so I could remember all of the details. I believe that this work of art, plus the trip as a whole, was the reason I decided to study art in college.

This is the polyptych (panel paintings divided into scenes) of the open altarpiece.

This is the altarpiece closed.

The cool thing is that earlier this year, in February, the Getty Foundation teamed up with St Bavo’s Cathedral to “undertake comprehensive examination and documentation of the altarpiece”, by removing it from its glass exhibition case so that the polyptych could be conserved. While it was out of the glass, the Getty Foundation came in and digitally photographed every centimeter of the painting, so that it could be examined more closely on a website that they were creating for the project. The painting is so detailed that a lot of its components get ignored. That is no longer the case with this website, where you can literally zoom in on any aspect of the painting that you want. If you would like to learn more about how they did it, which is really pretty fascinating in and of itself, check out the Closer to Van Eyck website address listed above.

The painting itself is one of the high points of the Northern Renaissance style of new realism. As this article from the Met Museum on the painting states: “the astonishing realism of the altarpiece rests not only in the fidelity with which figures, plants, and animals are represented in a convincing space, but also in its ability to forge a sense of continuity between the pictorial and the real world. On the exterior, the frames between the painted panels of the Annunciation scene appear to cast shadows into the Virgin’s chamber, in accordance with the actual direction of light in the Vijd Chapel. On the lower level, the technique of grisaille is used to depict fictive statues of the two Saints John, possibly as a painterly challenge to the long-established convention of sculpted retables. More astonishing still are the near-life-size nudes of Adam and Eve on the interior, who appear to project out of the depths of their niches into real space.” The subject matter, as is the case with most Northern Renaissance artwork is religion. Most artwork created during this time period was to glorify God and the people who commissioned the painting, to get them one step closer to heaven. The patrons of this piece are depicted on the very bottom left and right of the closed altarpiece. The title The Mystic Lamb points to the central bottom open panel where the Lamb of God (Jesus) is standing on the altar and his blood pours into a chalice, which is reminiscent of the Eucharist that Christians celebrate in churches today.

Another painter I really like from this time period is Robert Campin, also known as the Master of Flemalle. His most famous work is the Annunciation Triptych (The Merode Altarpiece)Again the Met has one of the best descriptions of his work in the following article: Like Van Eyck, Campin (and especially this work), is known for “its detailed observation, rich imagery, and superb condition.” You can observe this in the way the two artists depict the drapery on the figures. In the Annunciation Triptych, the central panel is the focal point. We see the Virgin Mary calmly reading while the Angel Gabriel comes in and tells her that she is to be the mother of Jesus, the son of God. The left panel features the donors/patrons of the painting kneeling and listening into what is happening with Mary and the Angel. The right panel shows Joseph, Mary’s fiancée, hard at work in his carpentry workshop. According to the Met, the central and right panel were probably painted first and then the left panel was added at a later time.

The Merode Altarpiece, ca. 1427-32

A student of Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden (also known as the Great Master of Tournai), is another of my favorites. One of his most famous paintings is one that was intended for a chapel in Belgium, but ended up in the Prado Museum, in the Royal Collections, because of the Spanish occupation in the 1500s. This occupation is how so many fantastic works of Belgian/Dutch art ended up in the Prado, the most famous example being Hieronymous Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly DelightsIt is entitled The Deposition or the Descent from the Cross, and shows Christ’s body being taken down from the cross after the Crucifixion. Again, notice the color of his sumptuous textured fabrics (such as Mary’s blue dress, created by grinding lapis lazuli) and as this website puts it, “the way he puts so many people (10 in all) in the scene without making it seem crowded, but rather intimate”. Jesus is being taken down from the cross by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea (the older bearded gentleman). His mother has fainted and collapsed due to her son’s death, and is being supported by Saint John the Evangelist. Mary Magdalene is depicted down by Christ’s feet. Despite the small size of the painting here, the actual piece is 7ft tall by 8 1/2 feet across.

The Deposition, ca. 1435

If you are interested in learning more about Northern Renaissance art and/or the Ghent Altarpiece, check out The Mirror of the Artist: Northern Renaissance Art in Its Historical Context by Craig Harbison and Stealing the Mystic Lamb: The True Story about the World’s Most Coveted Masterpiece by Noah Charney. I also found this series of videos on famous Northern Renaissance paintings such as The Ghent Altarpiece and The Deposition. 

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