National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of The Nativity Juan de Flandes (artist)
Hispano-Flemish, active 1496 - 1519
The Nativity, c. 1508/1519
oil on panel
painted surface: 110.5 x 79.3 cm (43 1/2 x 31 1/4 in.) overall (panel): 111.8 x 80.6 cm (44 x 31 3/4 in.) framed: 129.8 x 98.7 x 10.7 cm (51 1/8 x 38 7/8 x 4 3/16 in.)
Samuel H. Kress Collection
1961.9.23
On View
From the Tour: Netherlandish and Spanish Altarpieces in the Late 1400s and Early 1500s
Object 1 of 6

Juan de Flandes ("Jan of Flanders") came from the north—and possibly trained in Ghent—but his entire reputation is based on work painted in Spain, where he served as court artist to Queen Isabella. The Nativity, The Adoration of the Magi, The Annunciation, and The Baptism of Christ, along with four in Madrid and probably others now lost, were once part of a single large altarpiece in the church of San Lázaro in Palencia. All would originally have been mounted in an elaborate wooden structure that rose high above the altar, filling the space around it—a Spanish style different from what Juan would have seen in the north. The primary figures are pressed close to the front of the picture plane and the recession of the landscape is simplified to increase legibility from a distance. Repetition of round mandorlas in several scenes gives rhythm and geometry to the overall surface, and vibrant colors intensify the luminous effect of the whole.

The backgrounds in paintings by Juan de Flandes are often enlivened with charming narrative vignettes, characteristic of works from the Netherlandish city of Ghent. Here, a young shepherd is struck with awe and wonder as an angel appears in a brilliant globe of light to announce the birth of Christ, while his older companion continues to doze. In the manger an ox and ass eat from a straw-filled trough, an allusion to a passage in the Book of Isaiah in which Isaiah prophesized even livestock would recognize the infant Jesus as their master. An owl perched on the crumbling stable—the deteriorated state representing a transition to a new world order—may refer to the darkness dispelled by Christ's birth.

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