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The Christmas Story in Art
This horizontal painting is made up of three parts: in the center square panel, a woman reclines under a wooden shelter set into a rocky cave, which is surrounded by angels, and narrower wings to either side are each occupied by a standing man. All the people have white skin, which has been tinged with faint green over time. The three panels are joined with a gold frame, and the gold background behind the central scene and the men in the side panels are covered with a noticeable network of cracks. In the central panel, a cobalt blue robe nearly envelopes the reclining woman’s body, Mary. It covers her head and falls open where she crosses her wrists over her chest to show a pink garment underneath. A flat gold halo encircles her head and her body is surrounded by a field of crimson red, almost like an aura. She rests under a wooden structure with a pitched roof, which seems surrounded by craggy, barren rock. A swaddled infant lays in a rectangular, tray like manger. The infant’s head is also surrounded by a gold halo. Fine gold rays emanate down into the structure from a star just above the peak of the roof. A bull and a donkey look down at the baby from the opposite side of the manger. The interior of the structure behind them is black. In a smaller scale, two women wash a haloed infant in a tub in front of the rocky cave. A man with a white beard and hair sits to our left of Mary, holding a pink cloak at his throat and looking towards the infant in the manger. Above and around the rocks, seven winged and haloed angels cluster on each side. One angel to the right presents a scroll with black writing to two men accompanied by a dog and several sheep in the lower right. The man in the panel to the left, Isaiah, has a gray beard and long, wavy hair, and he wears a lilac cloak draped over a coral robe. In his right hand, on our left, he holds an unfurled scroll with large black lettering. His other hand is raised with one finger pointing upward. He looks to our left, away from the central scene. On the right, Ezekiel, stands in a mirror image of Isaiah. He holds an open scroll with his left hand, on our right, and his other hand is raised. He also wears a coral-colored robe, but his is overlaid with a blue cloak. His receding hair is short and brown, as is his beard. Like Isaiah, he takes up most of the height of the panel and gazes to our left, but because of his position in relation to the central panel, he gazes toward the Nativity.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, 1308-1311, tempera on single poplar panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.8

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This nearly square painting is visually divided into three vertical zones, with a pergola-like structure occupied by two people at the center taking up the most space, and narrower scenes to either side. The central structure has a shallow roof and several types of arched openings—some rounded and some pointed, all of different sizes. A winged person to the left under the structure has curly blond hair and wears a shell-pink, floor-length garment. A seated woman to the right wears a lapis blue dress and a white head covering. She sits with her forearms crossed over her chest, her hands in front of her shoulders. Both have plate-like gold halos. Two arched openings at the back of the structure lead into rooms beyond. In the left quarter of the painting, a nude man and woman are pushed through an arched gateway by a winged and haloed person. A bearded, haloed man looks down from a gold cloud above. Forest green trees line the garden at the back and flowers and rabbits fill the space around the people’s feet. To the right, a balding, bearded man warms his hands at a fire in a room beyond the central structure. He wears rose pink and has a gold halo. All the figures have white skin tinged in some areas with pale green.

Giovanni di Paolo, The Annunciation and Expulsion from Paradise, c. 1435, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.223

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Masolino da Panicale, The Annunciation, c. 1423/1424, tempera (and possibly oil glazes) on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.16

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Dozens of people line up around a shed-like manger and through stone ruins to kneel before a woman and baby, the Virgin Mary and Jesus, at the lower center of this circular painting. All the people have pale white skin. The crowd gathers along a pathway that winds around a rocky mountain at the top middle of the composition. Most of the people are on foot but a few ride horses or camels. The line of people curves around and through an arched opening in a stone ruin to our left. Sitting at the center of the painting, behind Mary and Jesus, the manger is open at the front and has a triangular pitched roof. Some of the people, including the three closest to Mary and Jesus, wear elegant, gold-trimmed clothing. Others wear simple tunics, and several people standing along the ruins in the middle distance wear only white loincloths. Ages of the people range from young and cleanshaven to older and bearded. Their costumes are mostly pale yellow, coral, crimson, shell pink, or sky blue. Some people raise their heads and hands while others hold hands to their chests and close their eyes. Mary wears a pale blue robe over a blush pink dress. The baby is nude and an older man standing nearby wears an apricot-colored robe over a blue tunic. The older man, Mary, and baby have gold halos. A peacock and two other birds stand on the roof of the manger, which shelters an ox, ass, and horses.

Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440/1460, tempera on poplar panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.2

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Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1478/1482, tempera and oil on poplar panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.22

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Four people with white skin are gathered to our right in a landscape, their heads bowed down towards an infant who lays on a white cloth on the ground in this horizontal painting. The nude baby has a rounded belly, chubby limbs, and short blond hair. To our right and near the edge of the panel, a woman kneels with her hands in prayer, looking towards the baby so she faces our left in profile. She wears a blue robe over a pink dress and a white cloth covers her head and shoulders. Behind her and to our left, a man with a white beard, wearing a golden yellow robe, sits or kneels next to a rock at the mouth of a cave cut into a rocky outcrop that extends off the top of the composition. To the left of the baby and at the center of the foreground, a pair of men wear tattered clothing and hold shepherd’s staffs. The man closer to us kneels with his hands pressed together in prayer as the man behind him and two our left bends his knee as if to kneel. The landscape recedes deep into the distance on the left half of the painting with a winding river, houses and other buildings, grassy hills, and mountains beneath a blue sky. A small winged angel wearing white looks down on the scene from the upper left corner.

Giorgione, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505/1510, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.289

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Close to us, a bearded, balding man leads a donkey carrying a woman and child to our right against a hilly landscape in this horizontal painting. All three people have pale white skin and halos. The man has a gray beard and hair and wears a royal blue tunic under a ruby red robe. He leans on a walking stick and looks back at the donkey. The woman riding the donkey wears a blue and gold brocade-like cloak covering her head and body. She has a straight nose, small pink lips, and she looks towards the infant she holds close to her body. The baby wears a white garment and reaches towards the woman’s face with one hand and turns to look over his shoulder towards us. The path they walk on is lined with grass and carefully painted plants. A river runs parallel to the path in the middle distance. The horizon line comes about two-thirds of the way up the painting is lined with green trees, blue mountains, and a few buildings to our left. Wispy white clouds sweep across an azure blue sky streaked with peach near the horizon.

Vittore Carpaccio, The Flight into Egypt, c. 1515, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.28

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Piero di Cosimo, The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot, c. 1489/1490, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.361

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In a V of land framed to our left with a tall tree trunk and to our right with a steep, grassy hill, five shepherds kneel, sit, and recline around and among a couple cows and several sheep, a goat, and a dog in the lower half of this painting, while a winged angel appears in a golden shaft of light surrounded by a bank of clouds in the upper half of this vertical painting. All the people have cream-white skin. One brown cow spans most of the composition along the bottom, its head facing our left. In the lower left corner, closest to us, a man smoking a long pipe reclines against a tangerine-orange cloth. He wears a round, brimmed cap, a loose white shirt, tattered gray, knee-length pants, and gray cloth wrapped around his shins above bare feet. He leans on his right elbow and crosses his ankles, as he looks toward our right in profile. Next to him, to our right, a woman kneels with her body angled away from us to our right. She bends over, perhaps to milk the cow in front of her with the pail sitting next to her, and she looks back to our left. Her chestnut brown hair is pulled up and braided or coiled. Her rose-pink dress and the white blouse under it fall off her right shoulder. A slate-gray cloak or scarf wraps around her waist and we see the bottom of one bare foot. On the opposite side of the cow, near its head, a young boy angled to our right, with straight brown hair falling down to his eyebrows, looks down toward the animal. Most of his face is in shadow but light catches the tip of his nose and the front of one cheek. To our right, along the edge of the painting, behind the rump of the cow and among the shadows, another young boy is seen from the chest up. He wears with a wide-brimmed, brown hat and reaches his right arm across his body as he looks to our left, toward the streak of light. The head of a second cow stands behind him, only the head visible. The fifth shepherd leans into the scene from our left, above the reclining man on the orange cloth. He has short brown hair and beard, and a slightly hooked nose. Wearing a rose-pink garment, he looks up toward the angel with his right hand shielding his face. A dog, sheep, and a goat are tucked in and around the cows. Golden light pours down onto that man from the angel in the bank of clouds above. Against a night sky with navy-blue clouds, gold and white rays emanate from the parted clouds beyond the angel. Kneeling on a dark, fern-green cloud, the angel leans forward and down, pointing down at the shepherd wearing pink with one hand and up and to our left with the other. The angel has large, silvery-gray wings and wears a gray robe. Blond curls lift as if in a breeze. In the landscape below, topaz and aquamarine forms could be mountains or surging waves.

Jacopo Bassano, The Annunciation to the Shepherds, probably 1555/1560, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.126

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Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1530s, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.86

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A man, woman, and four winged angels gather and kneel around a nude infant lying on the ground under a stone arched opening set in front of a landscape in this vertical painting. All of the people have pale white or lightly tanned skin. To our left, the woman wears gold-edged, royal blue robes and has long, curly brown hair. The baby lies on the hem of her robe, his body facing her. An older, balding and bearded man kneels to the right, leaning on a walking stick. He wears a red garment under a green robe, and he holds a hat in his hands as he gazes at the baby. About a third the size of the man and woman, two of the angels kneel between the man and woman and another pair kneel to our left of the woman, seeming close to us. The angels wear colorful gold, pink, red, or yellow robes and all have long wavy blond hair. Their hands are folded in prayer and all look down towards the baby. The people are sheltered in front of a crumbling stone wall under a wooden structure. To our left, a cow and donkey are penned in a stable. Two pairs of men stand near or lean on the other side of the rock wall to either side of the scene. A landscape with green rolling hills and a distant town with towers and buildings fills the background beneath a clear blue sky. A triangular structure made of wood beams is framed within the carved archway, which seems to separate us from the space of the painting. The face of the arch looks like it is carved with a nude man atop a column to the left and a similar woman to the right, and with miniature scenes stacked on tiny platforms curving upwards to the apex of the arch.

Petrus Christus, The Nativity, c. 1450, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.40

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Adriaen Isenbrant, The Adoration of the Shepherds, probably 1520/1540, oil on panel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1978.46.1

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A pale, light-skinned woman holding a baby sits to our left in front of stone ruins as one man kneels and two men stand to our right in front of a landscape in this vertical painting. The woman wears a long, navy-blue coat trimmed in gold, and sits with her body angled to our right. Her light brown hair is parted in the middle and covered by the hood of her robe. She lowers her eyes towards a pale, naked, baby boy with curly blond hair, who leans back against her on a white cloth on her lap. She supports the baby’s side with her right hand and her left caresses his head. A man wearing a golden turban-like cap and a crimson red, voluminous robe lined with white kneels on the dirt ground in front of the baby, and looks down and off to the side with dark eyes. The man has pale skin, a hooked nose, and jowls. A sword with a gold hilt hangs at his side and a round, white shield is slung over his shoulder. He holds a golden box open towards the baby. Two more men stand behind him. Cut off by the edge of the panel, the man on our right has brown skin, a flat nose, noticeably full lips, and he faces our left in profile. He wears a golden crown on short black curls, and a large, teardrop-shaped pearl hangs from the ear we can see. His turquoise-blue robe is shaded with petal-pink in the shadows in the folds, and it partially covers a gold necklace. He holds a gold-encrusted, jeweled orb in his hands. Beyond him, to our left, a man with pale, peach-colored skin stands facing us. He has a brown beard and his curly hair is covered by a crown set into a crimson-red, jeweled hat. He wears a gold, brocade robe over a navy-blue garment, and a large jewel pendant hangs from a thick gold chain around his neck. He points with a white gloved hand towards the woman and baby and, in his other, holds a gold vessel with a stem and foot like a wine glass. Behind the woman and to our left, a horned ox looks out toward us from under an arch in the stone ruins. Trees grow in the background and above, a golden star is encircled with bands of gold and blue, with rays extending toward the scene below. Nearby, a white and gray bird perches on the top of the ruins. In the background behind the men, two pairs of horseback riders and one man attending to one of the horses gather in a grassy landscape below a pale blue sky. The pair to our left have pale skin and the pair to our right have brown skin.

Juan de Flandes, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1508/1519, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.24

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Gerard David, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, c. 1510, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.43

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