The birth of Jesus, along with events preceding and following it, has been a major subject for artists since the fourth century. They can be simple works with mother, child and sometimes angels. Or they can be as is this painting, a narrative of several stories taken from the Gospels. It isn't a great painting but it is a good one, and it comes with a story that also makes it most interesting.
The Holy Family is in the foreground with depictions of the angel's appearance to the shepherds on the upper left, the Magi in the center and the family's flight into Egypt on the upper right. In the center, a river flows to the holy city of Bethlehem. Notice that the sun over which the angel flies is centered above Jesus' head, as it also references the star that led the Wise Men to Bethlehem. Jesus' head rests on a bit of straw, allusions to his humble birth and to the loaves and fishes narrative and the bread he will break with the apostles at the Last Supper. The arches are a device to divide visually the narratives. Jennifer Hardin, the Museum of Fine Arts' chief curator, especially loves the gestures of the figures in the foreground. She notes the tenderness with which Joseph looks at the child and touches his heart and that of the angels who lean in together in a loving, even sisterly way.
The artist and the art of connoisseurship
The artist is officially anonymous and most of what we know about him is from educated guesses. We do know with certainty that the painting was created in the 1500s by an Italian artist who was influenced by the great painter Pietro Perugino. It was made during the era of artists' workshops, a centuries-old tradition in which a well-known painter presided over students and lesser talents; the paintings were often collective efforts. The concept of paintings and sculptures as works of individual creative expression was a fairly new one. This painting doesn't try to emulate Perugino, who had a huge workshop, so when the unknown artist painted it, he was probably working independently. Signing works was uncommon.
Gleaning information about him falls into the realm of connoisseurship. It is a prestigious specialty in the art world in which an individual must have a deep knowledge of a particular period along with a great eye, sharp intuition and an encyclopedic memory for detail. Art connoisseurs are the experts on whose opinion rests the authenticity of a work of art. They look at facial expressions, the way bodies, fabrics and nature are worked, the minute differences in technique and composition to create comparisons and links between works of art to determine who created them. Opinions can be revised and challenged over the years. A painting that was attributed to Paolo Veronese, for example (and purchased based on that authentication), can be demoted to "From the school of . . ." or "From the workshop of . . ." or it can be elevated from a lesser status.
Master of the Greenville Tondo
Sometimes scholars get lucky and discover archives and documents, such as bills of sale, along with a trail of owners, called a work's provenance, which establish its origins. Scholars so far have nothing on the man who created this painting. It surfaced in 1976 when the late Dr. Vance and Isabel Bishop bought it from a well-known collector at a Sotheby's auction in New York. There was no information about how the deceased collector, who probably owned it for several decades, acquired it. The Bishops gave it to the St. Petersburg museum. Experts speculate the artist might be one of several known painters (definitely not Perugino) but not with surety. What they do have is a connection, established by connoisseurship, to other paintings, especially a round (tondo) nativity scene in the collection of Bob Jones University in Greenville, S.C. The tondo is the "lead painting" of this painter because it was the first to come into a public collection and be available for scholarly study. That's why the anonymous painter goes by the arbitrary name Master of the Greenville Tondo. A few others, including Adoration at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, came into public collections later and were associated with the lead painting. But for timing, the artist could have been known as Master of the St. Petersburg Adoration. So even though it's a better painting than the Nativity at Bob Jones University, Greenville gets the honor.
The artist worked as one tradition was ending and another was gaining popularity. A wood panel, what this work uses, was the standard support to which paint was applied, but by the mid 16th century, canvas was becoming the support of choice as it was lighter and cheaper. Not surprisingly, it first took hold in seaside cities such as Venice where the fabric, used for sails, was plentiful.
The paint of choice, on the other hand, traveled from northern Europe, where oil had supplanted tempera, a water-based paint. Oil paint's slower drying properties and its ability to create thin, translucent layers of color became more attractive as a more naturalistic style became popular. Oil paints were made from ground minerals and plants for pigments that were mixed with oil; the artists themselves usually did their own grinding and mixing, sometimes with added "secret" elements. Oil paint allowed artists to work more slowly and make corrections.
In the 19th century, a manufacturing process was developed to mass-produce oil paint in tubes, bringing a consistency to the medium. Pierre-Auguste Renoir once said that impressionism couldn't have happened without the paint tubes, which were portable and enabled artists to paint plein air — out-of-doors — with spontaneity.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.