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In Giotto’s “Nativity” a novel pope has chosen a novel image

Giotto/Public Domain
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Pope showcases Franciscan artistic genius in his 2016 Christmas card

The many faceted-personality of Pope Francis has partly revealed itself in his exceptionally “catholic” (read “wide-ranging”) taste in art over the past four years of his pontificate. When, during the barrage of personal questions that followed his election, the matter of art came up, Pope Francis declared his favorite works of art to be Caravaggio’s “Calling of St Matthew,” painted in Rome in 1600, and the 1938 “White Crucifixion” by Franco-Russian artist Marc Chagall.

As Pope, he has sponsored fellow Argentinian Alejandro Marmo whose “Christ as a Worker “and the “Virgin of Luján” were placed in the Vatican gardens.

So it should not be surprising that for his traditional Christmas card, Pope Francis chose another avant garde artist, albeit one who lived 700 years ago, Giotto di Bondone.

Giotto’s “Nativity” was painted in the Lower Basilica of St Francis in Assisi around 1320. At the time, Giotto was a world-renowned artist who had been lauded by Dante Alighieri and befriended by the humanist Boccaccio.

Coincidentally, Giotto had burst onto the art scene three decades earlier in Assisi, where, following his master Cimabue, he had worked on the groundbreaking cycle of frescoes in the Upper Basilica. Giotto was not only one of the first artists to use optical perspective to make scenes appear three-dimensional, but he also used numerous observations from everyday life—the surprised reactions of Francis’ companions as he performed miracles, still-life elements—to represent sacred stories in a more familiar context.

He is also credited with inventing the idea of a figure standing with its back to the viewer, a way to remind those enjoying the art that they were also witnesses, a little further removed, to the story of salvation.

That innovative engagement with the sacred continued in the work that shot Giotto to superstardom: the Arena chapel, where in 1304 he explored the theme of Mary’s Immaculate Conception.

So when the 50-year-old painter returned to the site of his artistic origins, he had three decades of contact with Franciscan theology under his belt and was ready to attempt painting St. Francis’ spiritual revolution.

The fresco, above the tomb of the saint, is in a much darker and more contemplative part of the complex. Giotto used a mesmerizing lapis hue for the night sky with luminous colors as contrast; halos in gilt and modeled stucco provide stirring flashes of golden light around the scene.

There are two parts to the work. The upper level shows the stable/cave (invented by Giotto as a solution to rendering the image scripturally accurate yet in a setting familiar to a western audience) where Mary holds her newborn Son. Giotto left a simple background of a taupe stone wall to emphasize the foreground figures. Angels swoop in from all sides. Twelve form a heavenly choir around the Mother and Child, semi-embodied with faces and hands clasped in prayer, but robes that curve with a flourish resembling musical notes.

Above the roof (note Giotto’s use of perspective here) more angels converge on the star of Bethlehem and the golden rays descending on the Christ Child. The Word has become Flesh and all the heavens give praise. The ox and ass even appear to be awed by the arrival of the Creator in the world.

But this event is not only divine, it is a human event in human history with human actors. Mary and Jesus exchange a gaze recognizable in every mother being handed her baby for the first time. She is swathed in the lapis blue to symbolize the abundance of grace that cloaks her from her own conception, but her head tilts slightly, a slight smile forms on her lips and her baby boy seems to smiling back at her. We not only feel divine awe, but also a very human “aw….”

This humanity leads us into the lower part of the painting, guided by the angel on the right who breaks rank to bring the glad tidings to the shepherds. The colors grow more pale upon entering the realm of humanity. The mauve of the shepherds focuses attention on their awestruck faces, the jumble of sheep draws us to earth where baby Jesus appears again in the image.

Read more: Treasures of Santa Maria Antiqua: Christianity emerges out of the ashes of Imperial Rome

This remarkable iconography of a Christ Child who appears twice in the same scene was an absolute novelty in Christmas imagery. But Giotto, after years of association with the spirituality of St Francis, chose to emphasize the dual nature of Christ, both glorious divinity and vulnerable humanity. Francis had made visible to the wealthy, educated and proud population of the 13th century the human life of Christ, in particular his kenosis, “emptying Himself, taking the form of a slave” (Philippians 2:7). In his Nativity, Giotto found a way to do the same.

And what an intimate human moment! Baby Jesus has had his first bath and the older, more experienced midwife tends to the open mouth of the swaddled infant while the younger impetuously reaches forward to take the child in her arms.

Joseph, seemingly forgotten in the corner, provides our key to entering into this scene. The elderly figure contemplates, not only as the protective sentinel to the sacred event, but also absorbed in the earthly part of the story. He will be the one to care for, clothe and defend the infant savior from the threats of this world.

Pope Francis’ choice of image also represents a departure from his past Christmas cards. Up to this point, the previous cards have been black and white etchings. In 2013 he chose the “Adoration of the Shepherds” by Giorgio Ghisi; in 2014 he went with a modern Belgian engraving by Victor Delhez; and last year the card featured “Virgin, Joseph and Child” by Carlo Maratta.

Now Giotto’s bursts of color and glorious combination of the human and divine reveal a different facet of the Pope’s eclectic taste in art—one that will certainly bring joy to the lucky people on his Christmas card list.

Read more: Breathtaking photos: The Vatican gallery of the maps

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