Piero's Nativity back in time for Christmas at National Gallery
Following a three-year restoration, Piero’s 'Nativity' returns to public display in time for Christmas. By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels' Arts Correspondent
Piero Della Francesca, 'The Nativity', Early 1480s. Oil on poplar, 124.4 x 122.6 cm © The National Gallery, London
On the first of this month the National Gallery delivered a wonderful early Christmas present to its visitors. One of the Gallery’s most cherished masterpieces, The Nativity by Piero della Francesca (1415/20-1492) was once more on view to the public following a complex three year-long restoration.
Piero’s Nativity is a quiet, compelling scene. Painted in the early 1480s, his depiction of the birth of the Christ child is as a miraculous vision that had taken place on the brow of a hill above his hometown of Borgo San Sepolcro in Tuscany.
He based his painting on one of the visions of the 14th-century saint and mystic Bridget of Sweden, then living in Rome. She is said to have had visions and revelations since her childhood, many of which she recorded. In her vision of the nativity, the Virgin is kneeling beside a stable (a typical Tuscan shed, in Piero’s view), gazing in humble adoration at her new-born son who lies naked and luminous on the ground, arms outstretched towards her. Meanwhile she heard singing of “miraculous sweetness and beauty.”
Saint Bridget’s construal of the nativity became a popular subject for early Renaissance artists. Piero’s painting gives prominence to a small angelic choir, two of whom play lutes, the delicate featured, elegantly robed Virgin, and the baby who does not lie in a manger but on the cold hard ground, although protected by his mother’s mantle.
An artist and mathematician, Piero della Francesca is known for imbuing his paintings with qualities of grace and harmony, precision and space - and although naturalistic, also a sense of mystery. So, rather delightfully, the restoration process has solved several long-standing myths and mysteries about this special painting.
For one, it was not an altarpiece, as previously speculated. Piero was born into a wealthy family and documents found in the 1980s have shown that it was painted as a private devotional piece probably for a bedchamber in his family palace. It remained in the family’s possession until it came to London in the 1860s. By then, however, it was in poor condition, with serious splits in the panel, and had been over-cleaned in several areas, notably on the heads of the shepherds.
When the National Gallery acquired it in 1874 it was so controversial that a question was raised in Parliament about it - how much of the original paint had survived, was it worth the expense when it wasn’t even a finished painting and so forth. The Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, defended the purchase, concluding, “I congratulate the country on having acquired ... a picture of the most rare and interesting character, and which I think, will add to the beauty and value of the National Collection.”
His approval has stood the test of time, said Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery. “Piero's 'Nativity' is a beautiful and profound meditation on the Christmas story. The recent conservation project has enabled us to see just how carefully planned every element of the picture is, from the play of light across surfaces to the rendition of the distant San Sepolcro hills. Over five centuries after Piero's lifetime, we can still marvel at his artistic vision, his skill and his sheer inventiveness.”
The new restoration, carried out by the Gallery's Conservation Department, was unusually challenging, said Jill Dunkerton, Senior Restorer. It also involved careful panel work as the panel it’s painted on was described as being in three pieces when it arrived in the UK. “It obviously had had a rough life,” she commented, including “a rough overcleaning at some point.”
But is the painting unfinished? The bare patches in the foreground of the painting and the lack of shadows from the figures had led to that belief, but the team’s restoration work has put that notion to bed. As Jill pointed out, the dry sandy soil we see in the painting is typical of Tuscany. Just think of the “Strade Bianche,” those unpaved “white roads” that run among Tuscan vineyards and olive groves.
The lack of shadows is now interpreted as showing the Nativity scene through the eyes of Saint Bridget. Augmenting the sense of the mystical. Importantly too, retouching the abraded paint on the stable made visible a patch of light stones on the right-hand wall. So, perhaps something that has intrigued many past viewers - “What is that shepherd doing?” is finally answered? It used to be said that he was pointing to the heavens, but it still seems an odd gesture.
Jill explained that we can now understand the young shepherd's hand as raised to indicate a beam of heavenly light coming through a hole in the dilapidated roof and illuminating the drystone wall. The shepherds’ faces have also been restored by glazing thinly over the lines of Piero's precise under-drawing, which fortunately had survived. Now, the figures of Joseph and the shepherds recede as they should, allowing us to appreciate once again Piero's wonderful mastery of light, colour and space.
Piero's artistic vision was always different. Subtler. The sense of balance that is so typical of his work has been restored, said Gabriele Finaldi, “Piero's 'Nativity' is a beautiful and profound meditation on the Christmas story. The recent conservation project has enabled us to see just how carefully planned every element of the picture is, from the play of light across surfaces to the rendition of the distant San Sepolcro hills. Over five centuries after Piero's lifetime, we can still marvel at his artistic vision, his skill and his sheer inventiveness.”
This clearly has been a labour of love for all involved. But the final word must go to the restorers.
Jill Dunkerton, Senior, says, “Spending the last three years with this much-loved painting has been a real privilege but also a great responsibility. Every decision, every tiny brush stroke of retouching, affects our perception of its appearance and meaning, possibly for many generations. I hope that visitors will now be able to experience its quiet magic without the distraction of the past damage.”
To learn more about the conservation and compare before and after, the Gallery has published a “Behind the scenes of the restoration” video, available on YouTube.
'The Nativity' is on display in a room of its own for now while the Gallery itself undergoes change in time for its Bicentenary in 2024. Free entry. Please see: nationalgallery.org.uk
The National Gallery is one of the greatest art galleries in the world. Founded by Parliament in 1824, the Gallery houses the nation's collection of paintings in the Western European tradition from the late 13th to the early 20th century. The collection includes works by Bellini, Cézanne, Degas, Leonardo, Monet, Raphael, Rembrandt, Renoir, Rubens, Titian, Turner, Van Dyck, Van Gogh and Velazquez. The Gallery's key objectives are to enhance the collection, care for the collection and provide the best possible access to visitors. Admission free. More at nationalgallery.org.uk
To mark its Bicentenary in 2024, the National Gallery will deliver a diverse programme of exhibitions and events across the UK under the banner NG200, as well as completing a suite of capital projects that will benefit all those who visit the Gallery and access its services.