GEERTGEN tot Sint Jans
(b. 1460/65, Leiden, d. 1490, Haarlem)
Nativity, at Night1484-90
Oil on oak, 34 x 25 cm
National Gallery, London
This picture is attributed to Geertgen by analogy with works given to him in seventeenth-century sources. It may derive from a lost altarpiece; at this period large-scale compositions were frequently adapted for domestic devotions.
The subject of this magical little panel is vision: first, the mystic vision recounted by a fourteenth-century saint, Bridget of Sweden, in which she witnessed the painless birth of Christ, the Virgin's adoration of her son, and the baby's radiance eclipsing Joseph's candle; secondly, the ocular vision of dazzled shepherds shielding their eyes as the angel appears, like a shooting star, to announce the birth of the Messiah; thirdly, the marvelling gaze of childlike angels, ox and ass, Mary and St Joseph upon the Light of the World naked in the manger. And, finally, it makes evident a new vision of piety current in the Northern Netherlands, in which humility is the key to holiness, and a new artistic vision.
The divine radiance is not embodied in costly expanses of gold and rare pigments crafted into a precious object. It is made visible to us through Geertgen's patient modulation of darkness, the winter's night barely pierced by distant stars, hardly warmed by fire, only faintly lit by the candle Joseph once held (probably lost when the panel was trimmed at some time in the past). Through Geertgen's mastery of naturalistic description, with only a shorthand notation of thin rays of real gold beaming from the holy infant, this winter's night as it was before the birth of Christ can now be seen to have truly been, as is written in the Gospel of St John, a night in which 'if a man walk ... he stumbleth, because there is no light in him' (11:10).