Lotto's 'Nativity' Exalts Idea of Holy Family

"O’er that lowly manger winging, Joyful hosts from heaven were singing, Canticles of holy praise; While the old man and the maiden, Speaking naught, with hearts o’erladen, pondered on God’s wondrous ways." –from the Stabat Mater of Jacopone da Todi. trans. by Dennis McCarthy A small painting of the "Nativity," signed and dated 1523 by the Italian artist Lorenzo Lotto, and now on view in a special exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, captures visually the words of the 13th century mystic Jacopone da Todi in his poem about the Blessed Mother at the foot of the cross. Behind St. Joseph on the left, on a wall of the stable, hangs a crucifix. This detail, unprecedented in a "Nativity," and chronologically out of place, suggests that Mary and Joseph had a precocious awareness of the saving sacrifice to which their newborn Son was destined. The picture, which perhaps was commissioned for the private prayer of a devoted couple, connected the Christmas Day solemnity with the Sunday that immediately follows it, dedicated to the Holy Family, celebrated this year on Dec. 29. Lotto’s "Nativity" belongs to the National Gallery of Art and will return to the permanent collection in 1999, after the major exhibition dedicated to Lotto completes its three-city tour. The show will be in Washington until March 1, and then will travel to Bergamo, Italy and Paris, France. It includes many pictures related to the Christmas season by the Venetian-born artist of the early 16th century, who was known in his lifetime as a deeply religious man. The National Gallery of Art is open free to the public every day except Christmas and New Year’s, and is offering many special holiday programs. Besides the crucifix, Lotto’s "Nativity" includes other unusual features which heighten its relevance to Holy Family Sunday, and can be related to the Gospel readings of all three liturgical cycles. Two turtle-doves nest in the eaves of the manger. Symbols of conjugal devotion, which echo the figures of the holy parents, the birds likewise allude to the future Presentation of Christ in the Temple, where poor families (like the couple from Nazareth) traditionally offered two doves in place of giving their firstborn son to the priesthood. The Gospel reading for Holy Family Sunday in Cycle B (last year) recounted this event. Lotto portrays the Blessed Virgin Mary in ecstasy with her arms folded across her breast, as the frolicsome Infant reaches up toward her. At the exact same level, to her right, her husband kneels in a typical position of prayer, with hands folded and lips slightly parted in speech. Joseph cradles his walking stick in his arms. A flask of water and a bag of provisions, for the upcoming Flight into Egypt, are prominently shown lying on the ground next to the Child’s basket-cradle. These details emphasize his foresight as a provider and protector of the family, and relate to St. Matthew’s account in the Gospel for Cycle A (next year), when St. Joseph, alerted by an angel, made haste to remove his family sway from the danger of Herod’s rage. Above, the three child-angels who sing "Glory to God" appear not quite ready for their entrance--as they struggle for their place in the music and one shades his eyes from the blazing light from on high. In this detail, a typical humorous touch, the artist reminds us that we are seeing a reenactment for our meditation, much in the manner of a Christmas pageant. The picture is also remarkable for what is missing. In traditional Nativity pictures, the part of the Jewish people to whom the newborn Christ brings salvation was usually played by the shepherds arriving from the fields. (The Adoration of the Magi then represents the coming of Christ to the Gentiles.) Yet Lotto painted only one shepherd in the distant landscape, and he has not yet received the angel’s announcement. Rather, the part usually played by the shepherds is given here to St. Joseph. Indeed, Lorenzo Lotto radically changed the way St. Joseph was presented in art. Previously, the foster father of Jesus had been depicted as a very old man who might be shown as asleep or distracted at scenes of the Nativity. In a misguided effort to underline the purity of the Virgin Mary, Christian artists removed Joseph as far from her as possible. In the "Golden Legend’" a medieval compilation of saints’ lives which mixed fact with fantasy, the life of St. Joseph was not even included. A woman of the early 1500s would have thought it natural to model her life and morality on Mary’s but few men could have seen Joseph in a similar way. The recovery of the dignity of St. Joseph began in earnest with the preaching of St. Bernardino of Siena (1380-1444). St. Joseph became the prototype of the virtuous and humble man—chaste, patient, hardworking, and provident. He was the head of a family and an able craftsman, Yet in art, it took a long time for the old imagery to accommodate to the new ideas. In this year’s Gospel for the Holy Family (Cycle C), St. Luke recounts the episode of the Finding of Jesus in the Temple. Afterward, Jesus accompanied his parents home to Nazareth, and "was obedient to them." This obedience included learning his earthly father’s trade of carpentry. In an era when many artists portrayed themselves as intellectuals and gentlemen, emulating God in his capacity of Maker of all thing. Lotto reminded the faithful that God as Man and also been the maker of humble and beautiful things from wood, and that there was no more beautiful work of art than the salvation carried out on a wooden cross. Copyright ?1997 Arlington Catholic Herald, Inc. All rights reserved.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2016