Today is the shortest and darkest day of the year, as well as the Sunday before Christmas, so this week’s picture is an appropriately nocturnal depiction of the baby Jesus in his crib: the Nativity at Night, painted some time between 1480 and 1490 by an artist from Leyden called Geertgen tot Sint Jans. A dark but touchingly intimate depiction of Christ’s nativity, portable if not quite pocket-sized, it was almost certainly intended for private devotional use. Despite areas of paint loss and slightly obtrusive restoration (the face of the kneeling angel on the extreme left has clearly been repainted by a later hand) it is one of my favourite pictures in the National Gallery.
My earliest memory of this painting is not of actually seeing it but of reading about it in the school library, in Erwin Panofsky’s Early Netherlandish Painting. Panofsky made the startling claim that Geertgen’s little picture was “the earliest nocturne”. While one or two painters before him had attempted to create the illusion of night, none apparently had dared to represent its true darkness as Geertgen did here. This was therefore “the first empirical and systematic account of the optical conditions prevailing in a picture space exclusively illumined by non-solar sources located within it.”
But as Panofsky also observed, it would be wrong to admire Geertgen’s little picture as a masterpiece of naturalism. It is after all a religious painting. Its effects are calculated to accentuate the contrast between the real and the supernatural – between the ordinary lights that might be seen after dark on any ordinary occasion, and the two bursts of supernatural radiance that illumine this particular, miraculous night. The crackling fire that warms the shepherds on the wintry hilltop in the distance is outshone by the claritas dei diffused by the angel in the sky, pouring down on the astonished rustics and giving them long shadows that slant off into the encroaching darkness. The light of the candle carefully screened by the shadowy figure of Saint Joseph (the candle itself has gone, lost in cleaning) is as nothing compared to the divine light that emanates from the glowing Christ child. The artist differentiates his treatment of these sources of illumination accordingly. The distant firelight casts a reddish glow, like firelight in real life. The light that shines from the infant Christ and the flying angel, by contrast, has a cool, silvery, strange quality. It is not of this world.
Geertgen almost certainly based his picture not on the Bible itself, but on the mystic visions of the Nativity claimed by various popular saints. The fourteenth-century mystic St Bridget of Sweden had described the baby’s radiance eclipsing Joseph’s candle, and the dazzled shepherds shielding their eyes as the angel appears in the sky like a shooting star (details not found in the New Testament); while Ludolf of Saxony’s Vita Christi may explain the intriguing proximity to the child’s crib of the large, friendly faces of those similarly apocryphal animals, the ox and the ass. In Ludolf’s description of the Nativity, the animals “put their mouths to the crib, breathing through their noses on to the child, because they knew that at that cold time he needed to be heated up in that manner”. As well as being a makeshift life-support system, improvised to cope with freezing manger conditions, the two creatures function in the picture as a sort of bestial chorus, wide-eyed and solicitous.
The true extent of Geertgen tot Sint Jans’s originality is difficult to establish. A mere handful of his pictures survive. The seventeenth-century author, Karel van Mander, the earliest writer to give an account of Geertgen’s life, tells us only that he settled in Haarlem, where he lived at the convent of St John of the Knights Hospitallers (the second part of his name “tot Sint Jans” is really just an address, meaning “at St John’s”); that he painted a triptych of the Crucifixion for the high altar of the church; and that he died young, aged about twenty-eight. Lorne Campbell, in the entry on the Nativity at Night in his catalogue of the National Gallery’s fifteenth-century Netherlandish pictures, treats Panofsky’s suggestion that it is “the earliest nocturne” with considerable scepticism. It seems that the great Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes painted a still earlier nocturnal nativity – now lost, but still known from copies – and that Geertgens took this as the basic model for his own picture.
But even if (as now seems likely) he was not the very first night painter, it is still presumably permissible to think of him as a kind of pioneer. There is more to the Nativity at Night, in any case, than its daring depiction of nocturnal light effects. I particularly love the figure of the Virgin, who gazes at her child through almond-shaped eyes with such rapt love and devotion, and who inclines her body so gently towards his, almost as if warming herself over a fire. Geertgen’s picture was painted at a time when lay religious confraternities were burgeoning, when great emphasis was placed on the pathos and humanity of the Nativity story, and when techniques of visualisation were commonly used to bring every last affecting detail of Christ’s birthplace into the mind’s eye. The Nativity at Night would probably have been regarded as a useful aid to such types of prayer: a visual device for the stimulation of empathy. Mary and Jesus are touchingly fragile, vulnerable creatures, made to seem all the more so by the darkness that surrounds them.