In the year 2021, Christmas feels different. Last year, it was canceled altogether, and now people are craving peace and light more than in a long time. So what better time is there for us to review some of the greatest Christmas paintings by Italian artists? There is certainly no shortage of them, what with the birth of Jesus being the most important event in Christianity.
Images of Jesus Christ and narrative scenes from the Life of Christ are the most common subjects in Christian art. When it comes to the birth of Christ, the reason Christians around the world celebrate Christmas, the Renaissance artists made sure to depict the three main events: Annunciation to Mary, showing the conception of Jesus, Nativity of Jesus, as well as the Adoration of the Magi. While there are many artworks tackling the subject, well beyond Renaissance as well, the five we’ve picked out below truly stand out, as do their creators as some of Italy’s most famous, and most incredible, Masters of painting.
You can even see some of them in person while in Italy, so keep reading!
Caravaggio – La Natività
What better way to start then with the one and only Caravaggio, and his 1600 painting titled “Natività con i Santi Lorenzo e Francesco d’Assisi” (“Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence”). Like many other Christmas-themed artworks, it depicts the nativity of Jesus, with Saint Joseph turning his back on us, Saint Lawrence to the left, the gliding Angel on top, and the Madonna, portrayed here as an ordinary woman. The work, about 2.7 meters high and 2 meters wide, evokes Caravaggio’s trademark chiaroscuro style of painting, making it almost impossible to look away.
But what is perhaps more interesting about this particular painting is that it has, in fact, been missing ever since 1969; it was stolen from the Oratory of Saint Lawrence in Palermo and believed to be in the hands of the Sicilian mafia. Since 2015, there is a replica of the artwork hanging in the altar instead. If you find yourself in the area, make sure you check it out!
Sandro Botticelli – Natività Mistica
In 1500, another Master of Italian art, Sandro Botticelli, painted “Natività mistica”, or “The Mystical Nativity.” The only work that was signed and dated by the artist, it once again showed the scene of Christ’s birth. This version by Botticelli, however, is quite complex, rich in symbolism, and defies the rules of perspective – for example, the angels in the painting appear smaller than the Holy family. We see twelve angels dressed in the colors of faith, hope and charity dancing while holding olive branches, the Virgin Mary before the Christ Child and surrounded by the three Wise men, and then six more figures at the bottom, accompanied by seven devils from the underworld.
Interestingly, the painting only became known to the public in the 19h century. It had traveled from Italy to England, having been resold for cheap. The National Gallery in London bought the painting in 1876, where it is still held today.
Fra Angelico – The Annunciation
Apart from being an inspirational friar in Florence, Fra Angelico (Guido di Pietro) was a talented painter. To complete the renovations of the San Marco convent, the Florentine Medici family commissioned him to create more than fifty frescoes in and out of the facility, one of them being “The Annunciation.” The famous Biblical scene, in which Archangel Gabriel tells the Virgin that she is to bear the child Jesus, is taking place outdoors. This was not common in religious painting, and Fra Angelico is credited as the inventor of this type of composition. The painting also represents the artist’s transition from the Gothic Period into the Early Renaissance, because of its lighting and spatial characteristics.
Leonardo da Vinci – The Annunciation
Speaking of the Annunciation, we can’t not mention Leonardo da Vinci’s own depiction of the event. Located at the Uffizi in Florence, this painting on wood could be one of the artist’s earliest commissions, done in his early twenties. Inside a garden, which alludes to Mary’s purity, Archangel Gabriel delivers the news while gifting her a lily, symbol of Mary’s virginity as well as that of the city of Florence. What’s interesting about this work is the “errors” in perspective – Mary’s arms are of different length, for instance.
Another Leonardo da Vinci painting dealing with the Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ worth mentioning is his “Adoration of the Magi” from 1481. Also held by the Uffizi gallery, this artwork is unfinished.
Giotto – La Natività di Gesù
If you’re ever in Padova, and more specifically at the Cappella degli Scrovegni, make sure to search for a Giotto masterpiece depicting, you guessed it, nativity. Another fresco, it portrays Mary, who has just given birth to Jesus Christ, surrounded by Joseph, the midwife, the shepherds, and the angels. Many scholars point to the intensity on Mary’s face, which evokes both the love and care for the Son of God, and her offering of her son to God and the world. A different kind of expression comes from Joseph, who as a passive bystander accepts this birth.