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The Nativity

  • Object:

    Altarpiece

  • Place of origin:

    Bressanone, Italy (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1500 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown (production)

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Pine and oak, painted and gilded

  • Museum number:

    260-1898

  • Gallery location:

    Sculpture, room 111, case 1

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This panel probably formed the lower section of the left wing of a side altarpiece. An altarpiece is an image-bearing structure set on or behind an altar in a Christian church. In addition to the main altarpiece, most churches had secondary or 'side' ones.

The composition is a reduced version of a relief of the Nativity of Christ by the workshop of Hans Klocker. This is now in the Belvedere in Vienna. It shows the Christ Child with two angels on either side and the shepherds behind. The composition is based on a print by the anonymous engraver known from his initials as the 'Master E.S.'.

The facial types and the fall of the drapery of the Virgin's mantle here are particularly close to the example in Vienna. The surmounting tracery and the blind tracery at the base are similar to that on several altarpieces from the Klocker workshop and from workshops in close contact with him. Above the Nativity panel there would have been another relief panel with the Annunciation. Painted on the reverse of the wing, and visible when the altarpiece was closed, were the Mocking of Christ and Christ before Pilate.

Physical description

The relief depicts the Virgin kneeling, her hands clasped in adoration, looking towards the Christ Child who lies in the folds of her voluminous mantle. She wears a veil on her head. St Joseph stands of and behind the Virgin to the left. Above the Christ Child is the manger situated in a dilapidated thatched building with an arched window, through which the heads of the ox and ass appear.
The painting on the reverse shows the Mocking of Christ. Christ is depicted seated in front of a window with a view on green hills. Two torturers are using crossed sticks to force the crown of thorns upon his head. A painting from the wing of the former high altarpiece in Kaltern by Hans Klocker, dated 1498, now in a private collection in Hall in the Tyrol (Scheffler 1967, pl.IIIb) uses a closely similar iconographic formula.
The relief has been carved in five sections and is attached to the back panel. The thatched roof, the ox and the ass are separately carved and fixed to the relief. The outer frame was made in the nineteenth century, as are the two columns. The left column is made of oak, although the base is pine. Both hands of St Joseph, the ears of the donkey and the horns of the ox are missing. The tracery at the top is partly damaged and truncated to fit into the frame. The blind tracery on the bottom is backed with paper. Some parts of the paper had been torn, as can be seen in a photograph of 1904 (Departmental photograph collection); new paper was added in 1955, and at the same time " modern paint was removed from the brickwall behind and the green area above and beneath" (Departmental records).
The mantle of the Virgin shows traces of gilding with a cream overpaint. The lining of the mantle is blue over a purple bole. Her gown shows a brown varnished top layer with a cream overpaint; the collar is gilded, and the white veil has a greyish white overpaint. Her face is overpainted with a creamy colour, but the eyes seem to be mostly original. St Joseph's mantle over a dark red robe was originally gilded, while the bag over his shoulder is overpainted in green. The tracery at the top shows traces of gold on the leaves and traces of tarnished silver on the branches, while the blind tracery at the base is gilded and backed with red painted paper. The painting of the reverse is much abraded.

Place of Origin

Bressanone, Italy (made)

Date

ca. 1500 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown (production)

Materials and Techniques

Pine and oak, painted and gilded

Dimensions

Height: 112.8 cm, Width: 79 cm

Object history note

Cernuschi Collection until 1898. Bought from Durlacher Brothers, London, for £60 in 1898.

Historical significance: This panel would probably have originally formed the lower section of the left wing of a side altarpiece. Although acquired at the same time as cat. no. 63, the two panels are from different altarpieces. The present piece was acquired as German, fifteenth century. In 1936 Otto Homburger suggested an Alsatian or South-Western Rhenish orgin (Departmental records). H. D. Molesworth referred to the panel as "a rather coarse workshop production dating from the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century. It is difficult to ascribe this piece satisfactorily to any regional school, but it has been suggested that the treatment recalls similar work in Alsatian and South-Western Rhenish altarpieces" (Departmental records). In 1981 Karl Gruber of Brixen/Bressanone suggested that the relief originated in Brixen around 1500, and that it was probably by Hans Klocker, and dated from around 1500 (Departmental records). However the piece is unlikely to be autograph, since Klocker's known reliefs exhibit a far higher quality of carving. The composition is a reduced version of a relief of the Nativity by Klocker's workshop in the Osterreichische Galerie, Unteres Belvedere in Vienna, which shows the Christ Child with two angels on either side, and the shepherds behind (Baum 1971, no. 194); the composition is based on a print by Master ES (Hessig 1935, pl. 7). The facial types and the fall of the drapery of the Virgin's mantle are particularly close to the example in Vienna. Moreover, the surmounting tracery appears in a similar form on several altarpieces from the Klocker workshop (Egg 1985, pl. 56) and in workshops in close contact with him, for instance the tracery dividing the reliefs on the wings of the Brixen altarpiece (cat. no. 65). The blind tracery at the base is a variant of that on the wings and corpus of the Nativity altarpiece by Klocker in the church of the Franciscans in Bozen/Bolzano, dated 1500 (Egg 1985, fig. 57), as well as that on the altarpiece by Klocker in the church of St Stephen in Pinzon, of about 1490-95 (Egg 1985, fig. 53).

Descriptive line

The Nativity, pine and oak, Northern Italy (Brixen/Bressanone), ca. 1500

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Jopek, Norbert German Sculpture
List of Objects in the Art Division South Kensington Museum acquired during the Year 1898. Arranged according to the dates of acquisition, with appendix and indices. London: Her Majesty's Stationary Office. Wyman and Sons. 1902. pp.42

Subjects depicted

Mary (Virgin Mary); Christianity; Column; Joseph (of Nazareth, Saint); Ox; The Christ Child; Crown of Thorns; Ass (animal); Manger

Categories

Sculpture

Collection code

SCP

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Qr_O70842
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