UNKNOWN MASTER, Austrian
(active around 1400)
The Nativityc. 1400
Tempera on walnut, 41 x 29,5 cm
Galerie mittelalterlicher österreichischer Kunst, Vienna
The artist of this painting is referred to as Master of Salzburg.
In this picture the scene of the Nativity is represented according to an apocryphal story of the Gospel: the Virgin is reclining on her bed while two midwives are on the point of giving a bath to the Infant. The woman in green is taking the Child from His mother, while the other is taking care that the bathwater is at right temperature. The bath puts an emphasis on the human aspect of the divine Child and is a hint to baptism. Joseph is seated on the right-hand side deep in thought. He holds his staff with his left hand, and is supporting his head with his right hand. The ox and the ass at the manger in the back seem to warm the straw and the small cambric kerchief with their breath.
In addition to some stylistic resemblances the painting is reminiscent in other respects too of the Trebon Master's picture of the same scene. In both pictures the composition is divided by the building of the stable, with the difference that here the supports of the stable look like the frame of the scene represented, and divide the surface into two parts and not into three. In both pictures the supporting pole, emphatically placed in the foreground, separates Joseph, who views the events from the back and plays a role similar to the spectator's. In this picture too we can see birds on the roof of the stable, but they are shaped more firmly and realistically (as are the figures) than in the work of the Master of Trebon.
In spite of the simplicity of the presentation and the somewhat rugged shaping of the figures with their rather large heads the susceptibility of the International Gothic style to elegance and decorative patterns evinces itself in this painting too. The elegance can be seen in the buoyant lines of the draperies, and in the Virgin's mantle, which clings to her body as if it were wet; the decorativeness in the way in which the painter has used the opportunities inherent in the rustic surroundings, and brought into harmony the pattern of the thatched roof, the mat and the fence, which are made of similar materials, and there is an additional harmonious touch in the plaited hair of one of the midwives.
As in a great many other pictures of the period the ground is exceedingly steep here; compared to the figures in the foreground the stable seems to be high, on the other hand the beam underneath the roof touches the animals' heads. Although the white piece of cloth between the two midwives-in all probability a napkin, another symbol of the human nature of Jesus-looks as though it were hovering, in fact it lies on the ground. All this is not surprising, since these forms do not convey space, they are meant, first and foremost, to fill up the surface of the picture.