(b. ca. 1465, ?, d. 1519, Palencia)

The Nativity

c. 1508-19
Oil on panel, 111 x 79 cm
National Gallery of Art, Washington

The name by which Spanish documents refer to Juan de Flandes simply means "John or Jan of Flanders." Juan is first recorded as working for Queen Isabel in 1496; two years later he is mentioned as her court artist.

Juan de Flandes demonstrated a preference for clearly articulated space and refined color schemes. Characteristic of paintings from the city of Ghent, charming narrative vignettes frequently enlivened the backgrounds of Juan's pictures.

The Nativity is one of the six surviving panels of an altarpiece from the main chapel in the Church of San Lázaro, Palencia, in northern Castile.

Juan's Nativity, as with many religious scenes, amplifies a biblical episode with theological references. The Gospel of Luke writes that the baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Here, however, the child is naked and lies on his mother's robe upon the ground, implying that the son of god was poorer than the humblest son of man. The ox and ass, eating from the straw-filled manger, are not mentioned together in Luke. The Book of Isaiah, however, states that these beasts knew their master and his crib. Since a grain storage crib relates directly to Luke's feeding manger, early Christian scholars believed that Isaiah's prophesy was fulfilled when even the livestock would recognize Jesus as their master.

Meanwhile, illuminating the starry night, concentric rings of divine light emanate from the angel appearing to the shepherds on the distant hilltop. Perched on the ruined stable, an owl may refer to the nocturnal darkness dispelled by the coming of Christ.

Suggested listening (streaming mp3, 16 minutes):
Arcangelo Corelli: Concerto grosso in g minor op. 6 No. 8 (Christmas Concerto)