The Nativity appears between matins of the Holy Ghost (f. 18) and prime of the Hours of the Virgin (f. 19). This scene was often used to illustrate prime in the Hours of the Virgin in medieval books of hours.
At first sight this image looks like a painting, but in fact it is an engraving by Israhel van Meckenem copied from a print by Martin Schongauer, a great Rhinish artist and engraver in the last quarter of the 15th century. Schongauer is reckoned to have produced this print in c. 1480, so Israhel van Meckenem probably copied it shortly afterwards. Testard altered Our Lady’s face in the print to make her look downwards tenderly and respectfully at the son of God. Because the print was too short (Testard probably had a trimmed print with no margins), the illuminator had to fill the upper area and did so by painting the rest of the sloping thatched roof. He also added many details to the background and used a simple golden line for Our Lady’s halo instead of the solid disk that hid the landscape in the original print. He moved the two wooden beams wedged against the brick wall to prop the roof up, and added a tree. He extended the illumination downwards by simply painting the visible parchment green. Testard was careful to hide Israhel van Meckenem’s initials under a few extra stalks of hay.
This is the only print in the main part of the Hours of Charles of Angoulême, i.e. the actual Hours. All the other images (Annunciation, Pentecost, Adoration of the Magi, etc) are illuminations done either by Jean Bourdichon or Robinet Testard. It should, however, have been quite easy for Robinet Testard to create an illumination of the Nativity, an extremely common subject, so his use of a print is very surprising. Testard might either have set his heart on using Meckenem’s northern composition or used this print to save time when decorating the book. In the absence of further details, this question remains unanswered.
Musée du Louvre