Christmas Story

December 25, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


PHILIP LEONARD, The National Gallery of Art: What we’re going to be looking at are old master paintings that have to do with the birth of Christ.

PHIL PONCE: Each year, the National Gallery of Art in Washington offers a special tour of Christmas-related paintings. This year, our lecturer, Philip Leonard, turned to the Gallery’s Italian Renaissance Collection. Leonard selected eight works that tell a Biblical story of Christmas. He chose them from 216 works in the Gallery’s permanent collection of Italian Renaissance works.

PHILIP LEONARD: Now, remember, the important thing to keep in mind is that this is the Christmas story in art, so we’re going to be talking about it from the standpoint of the way that we are looking at painted images that were made for a particular function, function in terms of the imagery of the Church.

PHIL PONCE: First on his list was the three-part altarpiece by Angnolo Gaddi, “Madonna Enthroned with Saints and Angels.”

PHILIP LEONARD: So you’ll notice that in this altarpiece we had the Annunciation. You come over here in the Quatrafoil and you have the Angel-Annunciate, and then over on this side, you can see the Holy Ghost descending; you have Mary dressed in red and blue, accepting the news that’s coming to her from On High. The Annunciation takes us to the Nativity.

PHIL PONCE: Artist Duccio Di Buoninsegna recounted the scene in Byzantine style in 1308.

PHILIP LEONARD: This is just a small part of an altarpiece. In fact, this comes from the great celebrated Gothic altarpiece, the “Maesta,” that was on the high altar in the cathedral in Sienna. In the case of the section that we have here we have the Nativity and then on either side we have Ezekiel and Isaiah, prophets, who prophesied the Messiah. The scene that shows the Madonna, the Christ Child has been born. In the Eastern tradition the Nativity is very often shown taking place in a cave setting. In the Roman tradition of the West the preferred setting was usually the stable. But you get both in this–the stable and the King.

PHIL PONCE: After the Nativity came the Adoration of the Magi. Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi created this work for the famed Medici family in 1445.

PHILIP LEONARD: Here we’ve come to an important change in terms of European artistic life. We’re moving from the Gothic period into what is described as the Renaissance, the Italian Renaissance, paintings that may still have a religious subject, but they were made for a secular setting, and they begin to have a more dramatic character to them. Here is the Madonna, dressed in red and blue, with the Christ Child. Then here in the foreground are the three wise men, the three magi, and they’re arriving here. It’s quite a scene, splendidly dressed, richly attired, wonderfully coifed hair. Only one of them has a gift that we can see. It’s the gold container that’s over here.

PHIL PONCE: Venetian artist Giorgionne depicted other visitors to the infant Jesus.

PHILIP LEONARD: This is the Adoration of the Shepherds. And you’ll notice that the painter, Giorgionne, has made it very believable. These people look like living, breathing people. They’re not like, you know, these very stiff figures against a flat, gold background that you get on an altarpiece. But these are what we would call representational figures. They’re very life-life.

PHIL PONCE: Gallery guide Philip Leonard ended his tour with the work of Florentine artist Piero Di Cosimo. It shows Mary visiting her elderly cousin, Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. Also pictured are two saints who were not actually alive at the time of Christ’s birth.

PHILIP LEONARD: To close this examination of Christmas paintings here at the National Gallery let’s carry it to another type of imagery. This guy has a bell. This guy has a crutch. This guy has a pig, there, that identifies him. He’s Saint Anthony Abbot. And very closely associated to the Christmas story is what we have right here. He’s Saint Nicholas, and he becomes the source of Saint Nicholas, who is where we get our Santa Claus. So you see, we’ve got a lot of references to Christmas here at one time.