The Nativity: The Virgin, St Joseph and the Shepherds Adoring the Infant Christ
- Place of origin:
Fontignano, Italy (painted)
Perugino, born 1445 - died 1523 (painter)
- Materials and Techniques:
fresco transferred to canvas
- Museum number:
- Gallery location:
Raphael, room 48a
Pietro di Cristoforo Vanucci called Perugino (ca. 1450-1523) may have trained with Andrea Verrocchio and subsequently with Piero della Francesco in Florence. He appeared as a member of the Florentine artists' guild, the Compagnia di S Luca in 1472. Perugino worked as an independent painter, refusing invitations to become a court artist even though he worked for important patrons including Pope Sixtus IV and Pope Innocent VIII, who summoned him to Rome in the 1480s. He settled in Florence in the 1490s and worked between Florence and Perugia. In the 1490s Raphael became his pupil.
This painting is a detached fresco, transferred on canvas, executed by Perugino for the Oratory of the Confraternity of the Annunciation in Fontignano near Perugia. It illustrates the Nativity of Jesus, represented in the centre of the composition, lying on a purple cloak. Behind him are the two traditional animals, an ox and a donkey, while above them fly two angels. On each side are his parents, respectively Mary on the right and Joseph on the left, with a group of shepherds behind them. The mountainous landscape recalls the hilly valley of Umbria where Fontignano is located while the whole composition is depicted in a light pastel-like palette providing the picture with a sense of spirituality.
Triangular shaped canvas; set in a mountainous landscape, at the centre the Infant Christ is lying on a purple cloak with behind him a cow and a donkey and two angels, the Virgin on the right and Joseph on the left, on each side behind them are peasants and shepherds adoring the Infant.
Place of Origin
Fontignano, Italy (painted)
Perugino, born 1445 - died 1523 (painter)
Materials and Techniques
fresco transferred to canvas
Height: 254.5 cm central piece, Width: 131 cm central piece, Height: 223 cm right hand piece, Width: 234 cm right hand piece, Height: 224 cm left hand piece, Width: 233 cm left hand piece
Object history note
John Fleming, 'Art Dealing in Risorgimento III', The Burlington Magazine, vol, 121, no. 918, p. 572, note 33: "Henry Cole records in his diary a visit to Spence's studio to see the Perugino on 12th November. He must have had it sent to London immediately for on 18th November, shortly after his return to London Barker visited him and, Cole noted in his diary, 'considered Perugino's fresco a fine one'."
Historical significance: This painting is a detached fresco transferred on canvas in three pieces. It was originally executed for the Oratory of the Confraternity of the Annunciation, Fontignano (near Perugia) and located over an arch in the entrance. The painting was flanked by a St Sebastian and a St Rock.
The painting shows the Nativity of Jesus of Nazareth narrated in the Gospels (Matthew and Luke) and in various apocryphal texts. The Nativity is often combined with a subsequent episode, the adoration of the shepherds like in the present case.
The fresco shows the Infant Christ lying on a purple cloak at the centre of the composition. Behind him are a donkey and an ox, respectively interpreted as allegories of the Old and the New Testament. Two angels above them recall the divine origins of Jesus while on each side are his terrestrial parents, Mary, traditionally placed on the right, and Joseph kneeling before him in a sign of humility. A few shepherds on each side adore the Child.
The painting was mentioned by Pascoli (1732) and Orsini (1804). In the middle of the 19th century, the fresco was whitewashed and subsequently cleaned thanks to G.B. Vermiglioli and the priest D. Agostini. In 1843 Pellegrino Succi detached the fresco on the commission of the vicar P. Nazareno Bonomi. It was sold to W.B. Spence for the Victoria and Albert Museum in 1862 and remained on long loan in The National Gallery, London before returning to the V&A in 1972.
This painting is generally accepted as one of the latest works by Perugino who died from the plague in 1523. The composition appears to have been engraved by Silvestro Massari (active 1824-1834) in the 19th century.
Furthermore the compositional idea with an open architectural construction over the Child is a recurrent feature in Perugino's art for this particular subject matter (see Albani-Torlonia collection, Rome, Collegio del Cambio, Perugia and Church-Museum of San Francesco, Montefalco among others).
Historical context note
Fresco painting is among the most complex projects undertaken during the Renaissance. This technique, i.e. painting on wet plaster, originated in the Antiquity (see the surviving fresco of Pompeii, near Naples, destructed during the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 B.C.), was reintroduced and developed in the late 13th century and the 14th century particularly in the work of the Isaac master, Giotto and his followers and perfected during the Italian Renaissance, culminating in Michelangelo's technological tour de force in the Sistine chapel, Rome (1508-12). This medium was used to decorate large wall areas of both private and public buildings. Such sizable paintings, in which timing was of critical importance, took careful planning and involved a number of assistants. A precise plan in the form of a drawing or of many drawings was required so that the composition would fit exactly on the wall. The artist could draw directly on the wet plaster (this underdrawing technique is called sinopia) or use cartoons (from the Italian word cartone) from which the composition was then transferred onto the wall. Another method of transfer, used especially in the 17th century for vast ceiling frescoes, was squaring, which replaced the time-consuming and costly cartoon technique.
Fresco, 'The Nativity: the Virgin, St Joseph and the Shepherds Adoring the Infant Christ', Perugino, ca. 1522
Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)
C.M. Kauffmann, Catalogue of Foreign Paintings, I. Before 1800, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1973, pp. 218-219, cat. no. 271A.
The following is the full text of the entry:
Pietro Vannucci, called PERUGINO (c. 1450-1523)
Italian (Umbrian) School
Born at Castel della Pieve, near Chiusi, he takes his name from Perugia, where he lived for much of his life. His style seems to have been formed mainly in Florence, where he is recorded in 1471-72. He painted some of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome in 1481-82, but thereafter worked mainly in Florence and Perugia or its district. Raphael was one of his pupils.
THE NATIVITY: THE VIRGIN, ST JOSEPH AND THE SHEPHERDS ADORING THE INFANT CHRIST
Fresco, transferred to canvas
Pediment shaped, in three pieces:
central piece, pointed top 100 ¼ x 51 ½ (254.5 x 131)
right hand piece, trapezoid, 87 ¾ x 92 ½ (223 x 234)
left hand piece, trapezoid, 88 ¼ x 91 ¾ (224 x 233)
This fresco comes from the Oratory of the Confraternity of the Annunziata, also called S. Maria Assunta, at Fontignano near Perugia. Another fresco by Perugino, representing the Virgin and Child, in the same church is dated 1522 (Camesasca, 1959, pl. 218A) and as he died at Fontignano in February 1523, it is thought that these are his last works.
The fresco was over the arch separating the nave and chancel of the Oratory. Having been whitewashed at the beginning of the 19th century, it was detached from the wall in 1843 (Massari, 1844). At the sides of the arch were painted SS. Roch and Sebastian, the saints invoked against the Plague. They were also detached from the wall but appear to be no longer extant (see Davies, 1961, note 3). The subject recurs frequently in Perugino's oeuvre. Perhaps the most similar compositions are those in the Cambio, Perugia (c. 1500) and in the Pinacoteca at Perugia (fresco from S. Francesco al Monte; see Bombe, 1914, pls. 112, 125 & also 158).
Crowe and Cavalcaselle, writing in 1866, saw in this painting 'the flicker of an expiring flame .. .', but John Ruskin, in a letter to Margaret Bell dated 16 January 1865, was more enthusiastic: 'Go to Kensington, and walk in at the door - and past umbrellas ... as far as ever you can down the steps and to the end of all the new show-rooms ... and you'll come to a blank room on the left - and on the wall of it, high up, a fresco of Perugino's just got ... the finest thing of his I've ever seen out of Italy - and few there as fine' (Ruskin, ed. Burd).
Condition. Considerably damaged and repainted.
Prov. Oratory of the Confraternity of the Annunziata, Fontignano; 1843, bought by Nazzareno Bonomi, Perugia, and removed from the wall; (?) Angelo Morrettini, Perugia (see Davies, 1961, n. 9); bought by the Museum in 1862 from W. B. Spence of Florence. On loan to the N. G. 1845-1971 (no. 1441).
Lit. B. Orsini, Vita etc. di Pietro Perugino, 1804, p. 214; A. Mezzanotte, Delle vita e delle opere di Pietro Vannucci, 1836, p. 164; S. Massari, Del Presepe di Fontignano, ultimo dipinto di Pietro Vannucci…,1844, p. 3; J. Ruskin, The Winnington letters, ed. V. A. Burd, 1969, p. 535; Crowe and Cavalcaselle, A history of painting in Italy, v, ed. T. Borenius, 1914, p. 356; G. C. Williamson, Pietro Vannucci called Perugino, 1900, pp. 110, 123; W. Bombe, Perugino, K. d. K., 1914, pl. 189; U. Gnoli, Pietro Perugino, 1923, p. 54 f., pl. LI; F. Canuti, Il Perugino, i, 1931. p. 228 f.; ii, p. 331 f.; N. G., Illustrations, Italian Schools, 1953, p. 273; ibid., Plates, Earlier Italian Schools, ii, 1953, p. 336; E. Camesasca, Tutta la pittura del Perugino, 1959, p. 134 f., pl. 218B; N. G. Catalogue, M. Davies, The Earlier Italian Schools, 2nd ed., 1961, p. 410, no. 1441.
L. Pascoli, Vite de' Pittori, Scultori, Architetti perugini Rome, 1732, pp. 33-34.
B. Orsini, Vita etc. di Pietro Perugino, 1804, pp. 214-215.
A. Mezzanotte, Delle vita e delle opere di Pietro Vannucci, 1836, p. 164.
S. Massari, Del Presepe di Fontignano, ultimo dipinto di Pietro Vannucci…,1844, p. 3.
J.A. Crowe and G.B. Cavalcaselle, A New History of Painting in Italy III, London, 1866, p. 243.
A. Lupatelli, Storia della pittura in Perugia e delle arti ad essa affini dal Risorgimento ai giorni nostri, Foligno, 1895, p. 42.
J. Ruskin, The Winnington letters, ed. V. A. Burd, 1969, p. 535.
Crowe and Cavalcaselle, A history of painting in Italy, v, ed. T. Borenius, 1914, p. 356.
G. C. Williamson, Pietro Vannucci called Perugino, 1900, pp. 110, 123.
B. Berenson, The Central Italian Painters of the Renaissance,New York-London, 1909, p. 220.
A. Venturi, Storia dell'arte italiana, VII, 2, Milan, 1913, p. 566.
W. Bombe, Perugino, K. d. K., 1914, pl. 189.
U. Gnoli, Pietro Perugino, 1923, p. 54 f., pl. LI.
F. Canuti, Il Perugino, i, 1931. p. 228 f.; ii, p. 331 f.
B. Berenson, Italian Pictures of the Renaissance, Oxford, 1932, p. 437.
R. van Marle, The development of the Italian School of Painting, The Hague, 1933, 391.
A. Bertini-Calosso, 'Perugino' in Enciclopedia Italiana,/u> xxvi, pp. 911-13.
G. Gamba, Pittura umbra del Rinascimento, Novara, 1949, p. xxxviii.
Italian Schools, National Gallery catalogue, London, 1953, I, p. 273, II, p.336.
E. Camesasca, Tutta la pittura del Perugino, 1959, p. 134 f., pl. 218B.
M. Davies, The Earlier Italian Schools, 2nd ed., 1961, p. 410, no. 1441.
L. Tesa, in Pittura in Umbria tra il 1480 e il 1540, Milan, 1983, p. 106.
P. Scarpellini, Perugino, Milan, 1991, cat. No. 211, p. 128, fig. 324.
Watercolour; Canvas; Plaster
Mary (Virgin Mary); The Christ Child; Bethlehem; Joseph (Saint); The Shepherds