The Isabella Breviary

The Isabella Breviary f. 28r, The Nativity Scene


f. 28r, The Nativity Scene

This painting in the Temporale, the typical saints’ section, and the painting of the Epiphany contrast with the style of this part, almost entirely the work of the Master of the Dresden Prayer Book. It was made by Gérard David (c. 1460-1523) in the first phase of the manufacture of the manuscript and he produced another in the second phase: a portrait of St Barbara in the calendar of saints’ days (f. 297r). A third painting also in the saints’ calendar by a great, unknown painter belonging to Gérard Horenbout’s workshop (c. 1465-c. 1540-1541) – the painter responsible for the first part of the Hours of Joanna I of Castile – or possibly Gérard David in collaboration with the latter, shows St John the Baptist writing on the isle of Patmos (f. 309 r).
The Nativity painting corroborates the hypothesis that the first production phase of the Breviary took place in the latter half of the 1480s. This painting was clearly influenced by Hugo van der Goes’s works (c. 1440-1482), particularly the Portinari Triptych dated 1475-1476 (Florence, Uffizi Museum). The Nativity is related to five more versions in which Gérard David explores certain motifs. In this respect, the central group is virtually identical to the one in the Friedsam Nativity (New York, Metropolitan Museum), whilst the Virgin’s face is very like the one in the Cleveland Museum of Art, a composition that is a variation of the previous one. The intimate setting, with a diagonal wall on the left which interrupts the plane of the painting and shepherds looking out through the gap in this wall, reveals the influence of the Nativity in the Hours of William Lord Hastings (London, British Library, Add. Ms. 54782, f. 106v) painted in all likelihood by Sanders Bening (c. 1444/1445-1519), who was in turn the co-creator of the Hours of Joanna I of Castile. The fact that Gérard David was chosen to produce this Nativity, and also the other two paintings mentioned above, is an indication of how much the owner or original patron of this codex appreciated this artist. In comparison with the style of the other two painters, and the assistants in their respective workshops, who produced most of the paintings in the codex, David’s style is characterised by gradual highlighting using countless tiny touches of pigment applied with the tip of the brush: a technique quite similar to the method used to model the traits in the few drawings attributed to this painter.
This painting is surrounded by a border of white acanthus with several birds perched on them and flowers and fruit springing from them, together with a stem with violet flowers against a golden ground, all in keeping with the painting’s main colours. It depicts the birth of Christ in the manner typical of the late 15th century in line with early fourteenth-century, Italian iconography and illustrations for the texts of masses in liturgical books – as seen for the first time around 1300 in the initial D of the introit of the first Nativity mass in the Codex Gisle (Osnabrück, Gymnasium Carolinum Library) – in addition to the authority contributed by the vision in the Revelationes of St Bridget of Sweden (c. 1303-1373). The Child lies completely naked on a fold in Our Lady’s cloak. She kneels before him in worship, thereby identifying him as the Saviour of the World, alongside St Joseph who holds a small, lit candle symbolising the light of mankind that is now futile in comparison with Christ, the Light of the World, and three angels with multicoloured wings. The stable, with the ox and ass inside at the back, is in fact a tumbledown building made of stone blocks symbolising the decline of the ancient world and Judaism and is, in particular, a reference to Amos’s prophecy (Am. 9:11) about the rebuilding of David’s tabernacle.
Finally, mention must be made of the perfect treatment of the landscape that can be glimpsed through the openings in the stable walls and likewise the use of a very skilful empirical perspective.

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