Works of Mercy
Robert Campin, known as the Artist of Flémalle (1378/79 – Tournai 1444), Nativity, around 1430, oil on wood, 86x72 cm, Dijon, Musée des Beaux-Arts (museum of fine arts)
This nice scene of the Flemish master presents three different episodes linked to the birth of Jesus coming from two different traditions: under a ruined building, a shed where we see an ox and a donkey, there is Mary, dressed in white and with loose hair, who loves the young Jesus, laid on the dirt floor, while Joseph is on the side holding a small candle in his hand. Behind them, looking out of a window of the shed, three shepherds have arrived, who look at the child almost with fear; despite being in the background, their presence is important, as testified by the fact that they are represented exactly at the point where the two diagonals cut the painting. Both these episodes are narrated at the beginning of the second chapter of the Gospel of Luke (vv. 1-20).
On the rights there are two very elegant women that we identify by the names written on the cartouches: it is Azel and Solomon, the first who believed that Mary remained a virgin even after giving birth to Jesus, while the second did not believe it and due to her disbelief her hand went paralyzed. She will be cured because she obeys the angel who invites her to touch the child with her paralysed hand. This episode is narrated in the apocryphal Gospels.
The beautiful and accurate landscape is proof of the fact that it is certainly winter, as understood from the bare trees, but the absence of snow, the sun that emerges on the left, the water that flows in the stream along the paths, remind us that the solstice has passed, the light starts to recuperate darkness. And the fact that light is an important element is also confirmed by the presence of its three known representations in the painting: natural light (the sun), artificial light (the lit candle in Saint Joseph’s hand), supernatural light (coming from the young Jesus).
Attention for all details – the landscape that almost seems a miniature, the richness and variety of the clothes, the faces of the various characters that show feelings of joy, astonishment, contemplation – testifies the great quality of the painting and the artist’s commitment to best portray this solemn representation of the mystery of Incarnation. We know little or nothing regarding the story of this painting. It certainly had to be for the devotion of some important character, probably of the Duchy of Burgundy.
We will now contemplate the painting and allow ourselves to be captured by it. This will be a way to prepare ourselves for Christmas.
“O Morning Star,
splendour of light eternal
and sun of righteousness:
Come and enlighten
those who dwell in darkness
and the shadow of death.
(Magnificat Antiphon used at Vespers on 21 December)