Figure 1. Scenes of the Nativity. 11th century.
The fundamental problem posed by narrative representations in icons seems simple enough: if icons are objects of veneration capable of effecting intercession – that is, if icons are idols in some sense – then what are we to make of scenes that minimize or obscure the presence of a mediating agent? A second related question follows: is it possible to offer supplication to figures in action – that is, to distracted subject matter? If it is not, what then is the function of a narrative icon if again it is not that basic quality attacked in both iconoclastic periods?
All of the above questions presuppose a liturgical and/or devotional function in the use of icons. Indeed, it is difficult to move beyond these concerns in thinking about narrative icons as each is fundamental to our understanding of these images. At the same time, narrative icons represent such a rich visual tradition in their own right that even the most essential ontological interrogations risk us failing to properly appreciate these panels as works of art, so long as we focus on their functions at the expense of their forms. It is this latter task of formal analysis that I propose to undertake in the forthcoming pages, though it will not exclude more general considerations of their nature and role in
. Then again, these broader examinations will serve first to illuminate the icons studied, and as such will receive as much attention as their facility in this respect merits. Byzantium
Regarding the subject of the paper, my primary concern will be a single icon in the Monastery of Saint Catherine on the Sinai Peninsula: an 11th century Scenes of the Nativity that features a number of related narrative strands represented on a single 36cm tall panel (fig. 1). As such it will be important to view the inquiries preceding my formal analysis as foundational for an understanding of this specific panel. My impression of the work, to be sure, is that it is exceptional rather than normative, in terms both of its narrative scope and also for its success in appropriating conventional iconography toward a new purpose – namely, for its expression of multiple spatiotemporal units within a single space. To interject, nativity scenes, by their nature as a hybrid series of disparate events, accordingly posed a difficulty or at least represented an anomaly to Byzantine icon painters, who characteristically depicted individual scenes or single portraits. As such, it will be necessary at the outset to sketch the basic codes of narrative expression in icons – and their relationship to iconic portraiture – before examining the manner in which the unnamed artist of this great panel has remade the rules of iconic narrative.
Once both of these tasks are complete, I will conclude with another well-known nativity, Giotto’s 14th century fresco in the Arena Chapel,
. My examination of this last work will ask whether Giotto’s narrative formulation solves one of the key problems extant in all of the nativities. (The primary focus of the paper offers a different, though perhaps less emulative solution to the same difficulty that Giotto engages.) In other words, to use George Kubler’s terminology, does Giotto’s work conclude a “form-class”?[i] However, before this moment in the afterlife of Byzantine nativities can be parsed, a history of the forms and iconography of nativity panels is necessary first. Padua
The “Scene” Paradigm
The idea of the religious icon is predicated on narrative. Each is a depiction of a historical figure or set of figures, whose visual inscription depends upon the details and circumstances of their lives. To merit representation, the subject of the icon must prove sufficiently germane to the spiritual program of
: that is, by providing as a model for the Christian life or in clarifying the vagaries of Orthodox theology. In this way, the icon’s fundamental purpose becomes didactic, as it mediates the faith for the beholder through figurative representation. Consequently, the move from portraiture to narrative representation in Byzantine art emerges as a logical direction for this imagery, to the extent that the story providing the genesis for the work is always implicit in the icon’s content. In other words, narrative icons make visible what was already there. Byzantium
To illustrate this last point, it is necessary only to look at any number of Byzantine works that augment the portrait of a saint with scenes from their life, such as the early thirteenth century Saint Catherine with Scenes from Her Life (fig. 2) housed at the Sinai monastery that bares her name.[ii] Here, a full-length portrait of the subject is surrounded by scenes that elucidate “the varied tortures she underwent and her final death by sword.”[iii] As such, the implicit content of the center portrait is rendered explicitly through the scenes that flank it. Collectively, they tell the beholder why Catherine is worthy of veneration in iconic form. While certainly one could imagine a knowledgeable spectator having the same reaction to another portrait of St. Catherine less the narrative imagery, there is, in the narrative form of Saint Catherine with Scenes from Her Life, a lack of ambiguity that derives from this transcription of significant events. It both adds propositional content to the imagery – that is, St. Catherine, who experienced such-and-such forms of torture, etc. – and to the degree that it makes explicit this content, supplants the oral history that surrounds all iconic subject matter.
Figure 2. Saint Catherine with Scenes from Her Life. 13th century.
Regarding the smaller images that abut the centered portrait – the “scenes” – each depicts, theoretically, a discrete event in the life of the saint. Perhaps a clearer example can be found in any number of the ‘polyptychs with multiple feast scene’ panels also housed at St. Catherine’s. One particularly illustrative example is the monastery’s 12th century Epistyle with Twelve Feast Scenes that divides the historical sources for these feasts into twelve discrete compositions, running chronologically from left-to-right, along four separate panels.[iv] Each of these “scenes” is segmented from the others by the artist’s rendering of columns and vaults to demarcate the spaces of the individual events. The narratives presented therein begin at the left of the first panel with an “Annunciation,” followed by a “Nativity,” a “Presentation at the
While it would seem tempting therefore to say that each frame has the value of a photograph, capturing a single moment in time, the reality of its connection to physical laws is less certain. Whereas certain examples like the “Presentation in the
” seem to showcase a particular set of actions at a particular moment in time, other scenes commingle this kinetic quality with highly posed figures that face the spectator in gestures of repose. An example of the latter is the “Annunciation,” where Gabriel gestures toward the Virgin Mary, who separately faces the viewer to whom she is gesturing. While such a scene does not negate the conception of a unified space and time, it neither suggests life captured unawares. Nor does a later scene of the “Raising of Lazarus” where a series of suspended gestures would seem to inscribe not a single time at all, but a sequence of moments: Christ raising the deceased; Lazarus returning from the grave; and his sisters offering worship the Lord. Thus, the artist depicts both cause and effect in a series of gestures enacted within a single space over a sequence of moments. Temple
Speaking of the expression of causality within a single space, a second Sinai panel proves even more salient in articulating the Byzantine understanding of the spatial and temporal limits of the scene: in a Menologion from the first half of the 11th century individual instances of martyrdom are paired frequently in discrete scenes.[v] For instance, in the second scene from the right in the bottom row, and in the third from that side in the row immediately above it, the artist presents a martyr bowing before a man with a sword, presumably in the moment before he will be decapitated. In order to express both cause and effect in these two frames, the artist represents a second martyr, already beheaded and lying on the ground. Lest it might appear, then, that the artist has represented the same martyr twice, each of the beheaded figures is distinguished from the adjacent bowed figure through his clothing. Consequently, these scenes maintain the same basic spatial unity of the feast scenes detailed above, as they refuse to animate the scenes via the replication of a single person within the same frame. At the same time, they achieve roughly the same effect as they depict both the moment before the slaughter and its result, thereby introducing a temporal dimension through the codes of the art.
The Nativity Exception
There does remain one constant, however, throughout all of the scenes described thus far: in each, individual figures appear only once within the narratives that they populate. This is true again of every scene in the aforementioned epistyle except one: the “Nativity.” In this example, the infant Christ appears twice, once lying in the manger and once being bathed by the midwives. Surrounding these two representations of Christ are similar details from the nativity story that collapse the spatiotemporal unity of the scene: to the left, magi present their gifts to Mary, while shepherds fix their attention on an angel in the right of the scene; below the shepherds, Joseph rests his arm on his knee in a gesture of contemplation, while again, the two midwives bath the infant Messiah to left of his earthly father. As such the artist has conflates the adoration of the magi, which according to the Gospel of Matthew, occurred two years after the child’s birth, with the birth itself (represented in Christ’s infancy and his bathing by the midwives), with Joseph’s decision to wed Mary (prior to Christ’s birth) and with the angel’s visitation of the shepherds (at the time of the infant’s birth).[vi] Thus, the “Nativity” figures a series of spaces and times that are woven into a single scene, irrespective of their historical disparities. That Christ appears twice in the space, moreover, confirms that we are not looking at a single scene in the same manner we do elsewhere, but rather that we are looking at a number scenes combined within a single space. The space of the scene portends not only an additional vastness of place, but different time values for its various segments.
Importantly, this replication of Christ in the same frame (amid other images lacking any similar duplication) is not unique to the above epistyle, but reoccurs in a number of similar ‘multiple feast scene panels’ at the Monastery of Saint Catherine and elsewhere. In a fourteenth century Polyptych with Feast Scenes, four separate panels feature four discrete feast scenes apiece;[vii] the scenes are oriented such that an arrangement of the panels horizontally produces a narrative running left-to-right along the top panels and then this same direction across the bottom series of images. In each of these scenes, the artist maintains a strict adherence to representing figures once and only once, with the exception again of the “Nativity,” where Christ appears twice in the same context that he does in the earlier epistyle. Similarly, in Two sections of an iconostasis beam with scenes from the life of the Virgin and the Dodekaorton, from the fourth quarter of the 12th century,[viii] the same pattern holds, with Christ’s duplication (within a single frame depicting the “Nativity”) the only such replication of figures, as is also the case with the “Nativity” from the third quarter of the 13th century Dodekaorton icon from an iconostasis likewise kept at the Monastery.[ix]
At this point, it becomes incumbent to ask whether this peculiar form of visual iteration is unique to the Monastery of Saint Catherine or whether it has appeared elsewhere. For this, a Constantinople ivory dating from sometime between the first half of the 10th century and the early 11th century provides further evidence of the ubiquity of the noted iconography: in a Diptych with Twelve Feast Scenes from the Life of Christ, the imagery of Mary beside Christ in the manger, Joseph in contemplation, and the midwives washing the child are all in evidence once again.[x] Owing to its particular form, however, the top scene – the reclining Virgin beside Christ in the manger flanked by the ox and the ass – intrudes upon the lower space, where the midwives must duck to wash the child. That the artist spares neither in a somewhat awkward representation of both marks the currency of this imagery. Another even more telling example are the 11th century Byzantine gospels kept at the Bibliothèque Nationale Dèpartment des Manuscrits. However, to isolate the truly exceptional nature of the iconography’s appearance in this illuminated text, it is first necessary to distinguish the literary sources for the visual subject matter discussed thus far.
Sources of Nativity Iconography
Much of the nativity story is well-known to western audiences: the annunciation, the visitations of Joseph and the shepherds, the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes and placed in a manger, the adoration of the magi, etc. These staples of nativity visual iconography derive from two gospel sources: Matthew chapters one and two, and the second chapter of Luke.[xi] However, these primary sources do not include all of the common iconography found in both Eastern and Western nativity scenes, including the midwives who have been mentioned on multiple occasions. Their provenance and that of the remaining iconography not mentioned in either of the gospels is a pair of apocryphal texts: Pseudo-Matthew and the Protevangelion of James. In the first, conventionally ascribed to Matthew, Joseph has gone to seek Zelomi and Salome to serve as midwives for his newborn son.[xii] Zelomi examines Mary and discovers that she is still a Virgin, even after childbirth.[xiii] Salome, doubting the veracity of her partner’s claims, checks Mary herself, which results in her hand drying up.[xiv] Salome then proceeds to touch the fringes of the infant Christ’s clothing, at which point she is healed instantly.
In the fourteenth chapter of the Protevangelion, a similar narrative unfolds with Joseph again seeking a midwife.[xv] The unnamed woman follows Joseph home, examines Mary and reports the story to Salome. Salome touches the still virginal Mary – as she did in the other text – and her hand once again withers.[xvi] Consequently, the Lord tells her to carry the Christ child so that her hand might be healed, which indeed it is as she performs the action.
Yet, it remains significant that in neither of these well-know apocryphal texts do the midwives actually bathe Christ, nor do they perform this operation in the gospels themselves. Still, the texts’ furnishing of the ever-present midwife motif confirms their importance to the development of the iconography’s visual language. Moreover, it is not simply in the importation of the midwives into the narrative but in details that appear in many of these panels that we may see the impact of the texts on the establishment of the iconography. For example, Pseudo-Matthew supplies the ox and the ass that are so ubiquitous in these images.[xvii] Likewise, the Protevangelion supports the representations of a cave,[xviii] the sheep “standing still,”[xix] and Mary putting the infant in an “ox manger,”[xx] which save for the last of these, have no intimation in the Biblical account.
If most of these motifs are easily established through the texts listed above, the inclusion of the midwives bathing Christ still seems a bit opaque. In his survey of this very subject, Robert Deshman in “Servants of the mother of God in Byzantine and medieval art,” notes that “the dramatic story of the skeptical midwife Salome began to appear in Eastern Mediterranean art in the fifth or sixth century.”[xxi] In an example from this time in the British museum, the author notes that “Salome crouches before Christ’s crib clinching her withered arm.”[xxii] What is immediately striking about this image, considering the iconography that has been discussed heretofore, is the placement of Christ in the manger in the lower register of the scene, along with the crouching midwife, the ox and the ass, and Joseph in contemplation. Above these small figures is a substantially larger Mary holding the Christ child as she is attended by both the magi and an angel. As such, this very early nativity-type maintains a number of the principle features of the icons previously detailed: first, the space is divided into upper and lower halves, both of which feature the Christ child, even though no other figure is duplicated; second, Joseph appears in the lower space, seated, with his arm held up in a contemplative posture; and third, a midwife appears with the Child, though again, he is not held in a bath but rather lies in the manger. Thus, one might say of this early nativity variation that it is closer to the narrative articulated in the apocryphal texts than are the later examples already examined.
By the eighth century, however, this more canonical representation had somehow morphed into the form that remains ascendant through the coming centuries – that is, with the midwives bathing Christ rather than with Salome showing her injury. Another Saint Catherine monastic icon, the 8th or 9th century Nativity of Christ, is particularly revealing in this respect, as it labels Salome as the woman washing the infant Christ.[xxiii] Similarly, Deshman points to an eighth century fresco on the Roman catacombs of San Valentino that likewise identifies Salome in a similar posture.[xxiv] Moreover, this early Italian example showcases a second scene to the upper left of the Messiah’s bathing featuring a midwife stretching her arm toward Christ. Thus, it almost seems as if we are looking at a transitional image that marks the iconographic shift between the injured Salome and the washing of the Christ child. As Deshman notes, “viewed as a whole, one feature of the scene has no known counterpart in Eastern art: the presence of both the doubting Salome and the midwives bathing Christ. In the East the introduction of the latter seems to have supplanted the former.”[xxv]
Still, what does this iconography describe if it does not appear in any of the related texts? Once again, Deshman seems to provide a reasonable argument: “though Christ had no need of ablution, he submitted to the care required by an ordinary infant to demonstrate that he received human nature in the Incarnation.”[xxvi] Indeed, it is important to note that from at the earliest examples of this iconography in
, a bar of light connecting the infant Christ to the heavenly and therefore divine realm had become nearly invariable among examples of the nativity-type (fig. 3).[xxvii] Thus one might argue that while this ray conferred the child with his divine nature, the bathing imagery worked as a balance, establishing Christ’s equivalent humanity. Hence Christ is represented twice for each of his two natures: fully divine and fully human. Byzantium
Illuminated Manuscripts & the Liturgical Function of Nativity Icons
So with this translation of Christ’s dual nature and the broader history of Byzantine nativity iconography in mind, it is time to return to the illuminated gospels at the Bibliothèque Nationale Dèpartment des Manuscrits. Here, it is imperative to note that again the midwives appear below the illustration of Mary reclining on her mattress and Christ lying in his manger. In either direction of this upper figure grouping, sheep run off, illustrating a passage from the Protevangelion.[xxviii] Beneath these figures, the manuscript again depicts Joseph in contemplation – or in sleep, as an inscription from the Scenes of the Nativity to be examined later makes clear – and once more, the bathing of the Child. This last example of iconography, moreover, is figured likewise in the illustration of the second chapter of Luke, thereby repeating an element of plot that does not seem to properly illustrate either of the Gospels. At the same time, were this double representation a manifestation of Christ’s dual nature as has been argued, then its presence in the gospels may have theological rather than narrative implications.
Accordingly, it is of no minor importance that this iconographic grouping appears in many more illuminated gospels and lectionaries from the Byzantine world. Among the numerous examples, one might cite the various illuminated manuscripts at
Mount Athos that contain this basic iconography: namely, the “Codex 2, Gospel lectionary” that dates from the 12th century or the “Nativity” (Cod. 6, fol. 89v) that appears in the twelfth century Homilies of Gregory the Theologian. This latter example is particular interesting as it features Salome holding Christ outside of the font, rather than during the bath as is characteristic of nativity iconography. That it connotes either past or future action seems to emphasize the importance of oral exposition to this particular scene from the Homilies.
Yet, in spite of the broad evidence for this iconography, its reasons for occurring in these lectionaries, and even more dramatically in the illuminated gospels (in the conflated form detailed above) remains to be established. To this end, George Galavaris makes a compelling case for the gradual inclusion of this iconography in illuminated texts in his discussion of the Homilies of Gregory Nazianzenus:
In the nativity, we have the standard composition which became preeminent in Byzantine art since the Middle Byzantine period… All the scenes are treated separately in the accounts of the Gospels and their illustrations. In the course of time, however, and under the impact of Liturgy, these episodes were re-grouped and formed a feast picture. The change took place in the Lectionary in which these events were brought together in the pericopes for Christmas eve and Christmas day and on which the Christmas hymns were based. This is the typical illustration for the Christmas feast in the Lectionaries.[xxix]
Thus, the iconography that seems so out of the place in the illuminated gospels and in the feast scene polyptychs that otherwise portray single moments in time, appears to have a liturgical function. That the events depicted were combined into a single space, much as its various sources were combined into a single feast, reveals an economy in both its celebration and its depiction. In other words, the forms of nativity panels were manipulated to reflect their function in illustrating a single feast or set of feasts. (It should be remembered that the adoration of the magi supports its own feast, Epiphany, a week-and-a-half after Christmas.) In every other feast noted above, a single image could and did suffice in articulating the source of the feast.
Scenes of the Nativity
It is within this broader context of nativity-themed panels then that the achievement of the 11th century Scenes of the Nativity at the Monastery of Saint Catherine may be understood finally (fig. 1; pg. 2).[xxx] As with the other nativity scenes described, this panel of likely
Constantinople provenance features the conventional Mary on a palette beside Christ in a manger, with Joseph and the midwives bathing Christ below and the magi and shepherds flanking the grouping on either side. Unlike most nativity panels, however, the above iconography represents only a fraction of the depiction. On this 36.3 by 21.6cm wood panel, rendered in tempera, gold leaf and pigmented varnish, the artist has further showcased Joseph’s son leading the midwives to the holy couple; the magi riding on horseback to the Madonna and Child – and then leaving in another direction; a shepherd playing his flute in the fields; Joseph and his family arriving in Egypt; the mountain swallowing up Elizabeth and John the Baptist to protect the latter from Herod’s soldiers;[xxxi] a gruesome slaughter of the innocents on the bottom of the panel; an image and inscription of “Rachel mourning her children”;[xxxii] and on the top end, a legion of saints congregating in the celestial sphere. These individual events are presented in discrete scenes delimited by the composition’s topography.
In terms of their relationship to each other, consecutive events (those that figure causal relationships) are depicted in contiguous locations, while there remains a basic top-to-bottom orientation to the panel: that is the events of Christ’s birth are located above the holy family fleeing to Egypt, which is depicted above a mountain opening up to protect Elizabeth and John from that same danger, and this on top of the slaughter of innocents. In fact it is only after Christ and John the Baptist have been saved that the content of the lower depiction occurs; their meaning is indeed predicated on the fact the bottom scene has not yet come to pass. So, the panel seems to impel its spectator to read the bottom imagery as ‘after,’ though certainly there is nothing inscribed in the scene to offer this temporal interpretation. Rather, it is a matter of space, and more importantly, the spectator’s scanning of the image from top-to-bottom, buffered by an understanding of the implications of the escape scenes, that generates the clear temporal quality of the lower scenes.
Yet, it is not entirely cause-and-effect that holds together the panel as again can be seen in the compositionally pivotal – it separates images from Christ’s birth above with the slaughter of innocents below – image of the holy family fleeing to
. Here, a clear break in the narration is sutured through its spatial connection to the scene of Joseph’s son leading the midwives to Christ, inasmuch as he appears in both locations, which otherwise remain remote due to the large temporal gap intervening between the scenes. Thus, simple figural repetition holds together the scene where no clear causal relationships are manifest. Egypt
Nevertheless, in spite of the clear relationships between groups and the overall top-to-bottom orientation, it still remains unclear, based on the spatial organization of the panel, where the narrative begins – and whether the spectator is compelled to begin in any one place. In order to make this determination, thus, it is necessary to move away from its spatial arrangement, and to consider another element of its composition instead: the panel’s use of color. Indeed, the most immediately arresting component of this composition may just be one of its least reproducible elements – namely, it utilization of vibrant red-orange hues in the upper center of the composition. In particular, this pigment is used for the central mattress upon which the Virgin mother reclines; beneath her, for Salome’s garment, in both representations of the figure; above the second of these depictions, for one of the magi’s garments; and finally, for a second representation of that garment in a space above the first. Corporately, then, this usage of the aforesaid red-orange hue directs the spectators attention throughout the upper left-center portions of the panel, giving the viewer both a visual point of entry into this exceedingly complex nativity, and a narrative one as well – namely in the birth of Christ.
Figure 4. Masaccio. The Tribute Money. c. 1427.
For a point of formal comparison in post-Medieval world, one might briefly consider Masaccio’s Tribute Money fresco in the Brancacci Chapel (fig. 4). Here, in this series of narrative scenes, a similarly arresting orange is used to emphasize a figure in front of Christ, who turns his back to the spectator, and another beside him to his right (thereby surrounding the primary subject of this figure grouping). Being drawn to the first, the viewer then follows the direction of his gesture which leads our gaze toward Christ, in a more muted pink-red, who in turn points to Peter, as the latter enacts the second portion of the narrative on the far left edge of the fresco. Thus, Masaccio similarly compels his spectator to begin his narrative in a specific spot via the usage of a very similar hue. From this starting point the spatial dynamics of the narrative take over with the viewer following the gestures and then the strong diagonals of the mountainous backdrop to visually recount the three-part narrative in three scenes organized center, left and then right: Christ gives the command, Peter finds the money in a fish’s mouth, and finally he pays the official.
That the spectator is to start in this center figural grouping, to return to the Scenes of the Nativity, follows from the sequentially primary sequences that it depicts – just as the strong orange in Masaccio’s fresco leads the spectator to the first of the three scenes in the middle of the composition. Similarly, if axiomatically it can be said of Byzantine icons that the center is the most significant area of the painting, as is certainly true of Byzantine portraits and each of the nativities discussed until now, then the use of such an attention-grabbing pigment in this region of the painting should similarly tip the spectator as to the primacy of this center figural arrangement. That this field further simulates the iconography discussed thus far likewise suggests another aspect of its importance to the composition as a whole: namely, that it identifies this nativity with the iconographic tradition of nativity scenes in general, and therefore as a feast-day nativity scene.
Still, what distinguishes this 11th century Scenes of the Nativity from other nativity panels in the sequence discussed is less its similarity to other nativities than it is difference, and particularly, its formal solutions to the narrative problems inherent in all nativity feast panels – that is, to instantiate events which occurred over a span of more than two years, within the discrete space of a feast panel. Here, the artist has invented a series of overlapping rolling hillsides within which the narrative occurs. The scenes thusly depicted each comprise their own historical moments, which on occasion maintain causal relationships with the other events conveyed in their immediate proximity. That is, the two scenes of the midwives listed above, for instance, are represented on an unbroken diagonal with each other, while the two articulations of the magi scenes are connected vertically. Between neither of the pairings are there any other scenes or figures represented.
Of course, that this Scenes of the Nativity has dispersed the action into a number of causally-linked spaces also impacts the physical laws on display in the panel. Thus, rather than representing the figures only once, as is the case with the majority of feast scenes, the characters appear as often as the narrative determines. As such, Mary is present not only on her mattress, but also holding the infant Christ in the upper left as the magi present their gifts, as well as on the back of the donkey as she and her family travel to
. Likewise, Christ also appears in these three scenes, as well as with the midwives who bathe him. Therefore, the multiple representations of Christ on the panel are transformed from the anomalous tradition detailed above, into a series of internally-consist spaces that match the physical laws maintained elsewhere in the work. In other words, there is no “exception” in this Scenes of the Nativity, as a single set of rules governs the entire work. Indeed, the traditional narrative iconography, rather than being imposed onto a series of scenes that operate according to a different logic (as is the case with the epistyles listed above), is assimilated instead into a panel that makes normative its very anomalies: that is, its incongruous utilization of replication. Here, one might even say that the fundamental problem of most nativity feast scenes – the demands of divergent times and spaces – is used to the advantage of the work. A logic is built out of earlier examples of incoherence. Egypt
Not that this is the only occasion for formal invention in this 11th century panel. A second key location for both the problems of representation and their solutions is in its conveyance of divinity through elements of its formal composition. Returning to the upper magi depiction, here an angel hovers above the setting along a thick black boundary that delineates the heavenly above from the corporeal below. Narratively, the angel’s function presumably is to warn the magi to return by another path, which they will on the other side of the central figure grouping (thereby expressing this plot point by purely spatial means). Yet the artist does not simply allow for an expressly narrative communication of this information, but instead makes a theological argument via his location of the figure on the aforesaid boundary. That is, a permeable boundary between heaven and earth is created in order to articulate the divine character of this being. Indeed, this barrier is breached for a second time by a separate angel who visits the shepherd in the fields, granting further credence to an interpretation of this formal element’s theological function.
At this point, one might argue that the presence of a third angel visiting Joseph below might then appear to be an exception to the schema indicated above. However, that this angel is situated within a brown color field that likewise includes the angel visiting the shepherd and the divine Christ child – the only other express representations of divinity on the panel; the bathing Christ, as is argued above, is a visualization of his humanity – confirms that the artist of the work is interested in more than simply detailing the exigencies of the nativity plot; instead, the artist has manifested a will to parse the theological dimensions of the well-known story. In other words, the divine nature of beings that pass into this world finds expression both in direct visual analogy – the black boundary between the two realms – and also in their pictorial association within a single color field. In this way, the beam of light that connects Christ to the heavens seems (at least to the modern spectator) slightly less aberrant as it is paired with a second form – the brown color field – whose purpose is a similar imputation of divinity.
Speaking of this color field, in the lower left portion of this swath, beside the only angel not located along the black boundary, Joseph reclines in the same position that he maintains throughout the Byzantine nativity sequence being discussed. (While this particular image can be ambiguous in certain representations of the nativity narrative, here an inscription reads: ‘Joseph, son of David, fear not to take Maria as your wife.’) In this case, however, the curved contour of Joseph’s back is echoed by the topography next to which he sits, and which delineates him from the midwives to his right. As such, the artist’s manipulation of this space serves the narrative that it supports in that provide separate fields for discrete action, even as the artist has attempted to establish a visual harmony between his figural and topographic forms. For instance, the same contour that echoes Joseph’s back as he reclines (perhaps even on this curved hillside) also establishes a visual rhyme with Salome as she bends over in the adjacent scene. Likewise, the hillside that crops the midwives as they climb toward the plateau, where they will wash the infant Christ, serves as the mountain that will also hide Elizabeth and John from Herod’s soldier. Thus, there is a double function to the topography as it both distinguishes separate scenes and also confers the physical space within which the narrative is occurring, beyond its aesthetic role in harmonizing the figures in space.
Moreover, the artist of the icon has demonstrated an acumen for naturalism that is not at first obvious in this rather flat (in perspectival terms) panel. Indeed, it would be left to later artists to establish atmospheric and one-point perspective in nativity icons.[xxxiii] However, in this system of overlapping hillsides, the artist is careful to represent tangible floors upon which the action is set, be it the flat ground upon which the magi present their gifts to the Virgin and child, or the gentle slope of the ground over which the Theotokos travels to Egypt. In either case, the artist utilizes a modeling in light and shadow that imputes a presence to the spaces where the action is occurring. Though it is more that they suggest a spatial world than it is rendered in its totality, the fact that these interlocking scenes are spatialized in this fashion confirms the works’ attempt to bring a certain facsimile of naturalism to an iconography that often eschews this very quality.
In fact, one can see a similar attempt to represent figural volume as another manifestation of the artist’s naturalistic impulse. To this end, the artist again models his surfaces in light and shadow to convey a sense of volume in the figures: a good example of this technique can be found on Joseph’s leg as he leads his family to
. Here, a bright light reflects off the front of Joseph’s leg, which is likewise shaped by the shadow on either side of this surface (whether it is the back of his leg or his inner thigh). Moreover, the folds of the drapery reaffirm the weight of the figure as they cascade over its surface, thereby also demonstrating the artist’s keen interest in representing textiles much as they would appear in nature. Egypt
So what then is to be made of the exceptional detail observed in the artist’s rendering of drapery, and more to the point how does it relate to the aesthetic program otherwise instantiated in Scenes of the Nativity? First, the use of the word “naturalistic” to connote a certain life-likeness in these textiles is by no means arbitrary. In fact, it is this same impulse that animates the works’ engagement to the central problematic of the nativity feast scene: that is, to its solution to the iconographic problem of figural replication. In this piece, the laws that govern traditional forms are implemented across the entire scene, producing a narrative which is not merely suspended in a single time, but rather accumulates a series of moments – without any arresting exceptions. In other words, Scenes of the Nativity represents one of the fullest attempts in Byzantium to depict the fourth dimension, time, which of course is the basis for all narrative depiction. Thus, to use Alois Riegl’s terminology apropos of Dutch portraiture, the artist has concerned himself with producing an “internal coherence,” at least with regard to the individual narrative scenes.[xxxiv] That is, each figures a genuine moment in time.
However, in producing the effects listed above, the artist has sacrificed the coherence of the space as subject to a single fragment of time. Not that there is any such restriction to naturalistic settings in Byzantine art. After all, the epistyles considered formerly articulate their narratives in classical settings often delimited by large columns. It is though the spaces of these settings are prosceniums. This we could also say of Scenes of the Nativity, so long as we make the following addendum: that the settings here are far sparer. To fully conceptualize space in this work, it is necessary to consider each representation as spatially unrelated to the others. Imagine for instance the Theotokos arriving in
with the remaining panel depictions occluded. Perhaps the hill behind them the remains, or better yet, disappears as the floor beneath the family extends to the horizon. Either way, the topography becomes incidental, a compositional tool rather than the precise setting for the events. To use the terminology of cinema, this is a work of montage: the individual scenes are their own discrete units, connected by the spatial organization of the topography. Rather than being linked together in a horizontal strip – as with both cinema and the epistyles considered heretofore – these moments in time adhere to the flat surface of the panel. Egypt
All of this is to say that Scenes of the Nativity reaffirms Byzantine conventions of spatial un-reality, though in a new way. Thus, it is should not be a critical over-extension to say of the work that it portends an increased naturalism, provided that space is never wholly naturalistic in Byzantine art. It smuggles these qualities in its modeling and its maintenance of physical laws – two places where this quality can emerge in Byzantine art – while upholding the theatrical nature of space in Byzantine narrative art.
Figure 5. Giotto. Nativity. c. 1304-6.
Postscript – Giotto’s Arena Chapel Nativity
If Scenes of the Nativity’s solution to the problematic nature of nativity feast scenes was to universalize the anomalous, and thereby to make it the code itself, Giotto’s answer can be seen as the opposite course: to bring everything into the unity of a single figure in space. However, what makes Giotto’s particular solution more instructive than other similar post-Byzantine works is his retention of the breadth of nativity iconography. In his fresco at the Arena Chapel in
(fig. 5), Giotto keeps Mary and the infant, the ox manger, the ox and ass, the presence of the midwife, sheep, a shepherd and the heavenly hosts above – that is all the irreducible elements of the iconography – while creating a new dynamic unifying the figural grouping. In the case of this work, Giotto has depicted Mary handing Christ to the Midwife over the manger, thereby uniting these two traditionally discrete scenes. To put it another way, Giotto has submitted each of his figures to a single moment in time. Indeed, the Arena chapel painting still showcases events with different temporal geneses: namely, Joseph in sleep, the angels announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds, etc., but with the corrective that the scene could be instantly understood as a coherent space in time. As with Scenes of the Nativity, there is no exception in Giotto’s cycle, though again, Giotto accomplishes this by bringing the nativity iconography into correspondence with the other feast scene’s reliance upon spatiotemporal unity, whereas the earlier panel uses the “exception” to produce a new logic. Padua
[i] George Kubler defines the “form-class” in the following terms: “The entity composed by the problem and its solutions constitutes a form-class.” Kubler, The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962): 33.
[ii] Robert S. Nelson and Kristen M. Collins, eds., Holy Image, Hallowed Ground: Icons from Sinai (
: The J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006): 264-5, fig. 55. Los Angeles
[iii] Ibid., 265.
[iv] Ibid., 170-3, fig. 20.
[v] Konstantinos A. Manafis, ed., Sinai: Treasures from the Monastery of Saint Catherine (Athens: Ekdotike Athenon, 1990): 147, fig. 16.
[vi] Iconography of Joseph
[vii] Nelson and Collins, 162-3, fig. 18.
[viii] Manafis, 156-7, fig. 25.
[ix] Ibid., 194, fig. 68.
[x] Helen C. Evans and William D. Wixom, eds., The Glory of
: Art and Culture of the Middle Byzantine Era, A.D. 843-1261 (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997): fig. 91. Byzantium
[xi] Gospel of Matthew 1:18-2:18 and Gospel of Luke 2:1-24.
[xv] The Protevangelion of James (http://ministries.tliquest.net/theology/apocryphas/nt/protevan.htm): 14:1-10.
[xvi] In this passage, the author states: “But her hand was withered and she groaned bitterly. Ibid., 14:20.
[xvii] Pseudo-Matthew, chapter. 14.
[xviii] Protevangelion, 12:13.
[xix] Ibid., 13:8.
[xx] Pseudo-Matthew, chapter. 16.
[xxi] Robert Deshman, “Servants of the Mother of God in Byzantine and Medieval Art,” in Word & Image 5 (1989): 33.
[xxii] Ibid., 33-4, fig. 1.
[xxiii] Manafis, 140, fig. 6.
[xxiv] Deshman, 33, 36; fig. 3.
[xxv] Ibid., 36.
[xxvi] Ibid., 33.
[xxvii] “The Nativity with various associated scenes. This is a portable encaustic icon of religious folk art dating to the 7th century.” (http://touregypt.net/featurestories/catherines2-7.htm)
[xxix] Manafis, 317.
[xxx] Nelson and Collins, 154-5.
[xxxi] Protevangelion 16:6.
[xxxii] Matthew 2:18. This depiction, it is worth noting, visualizes allegory.
[xxxiii] Examples of increased perspectival depth – depicting the space in planes stretching from the bottom foreground to the top background – become common from the 14th century onward. Kurt Weitzmann discusses the ascendancy of such a style in The Icon (p. 170-3). Among other pieces, he mentions a Nativity of the Christ, detailed on page 172. Additional instances beyond his immediate purview include a Sinai Hexaptych with the Dodekaorton (14th c.; Manafis, p. 198-9, fig. 72); The Nativity (Constantinople artist, 15th c.; in Anastasia Drandaki, Greek Icons: 14th-18th century, the Rena Andreadis Collection, p. 24, fig. 4); and Icon with the Mother of God of Vladimir (in Sinai Byzantium Russia: Orthodox Art from the Sixth to the Twentieth Century, fig. R63).
[xxxiv] Alois Riegl, The Group Portraiture of
(Los Angeles: The Getty Research Institute for the History of Art and the Humanities, 1999): 220-1. Holland