MASTER of Flémalle
(b. ca. 1375, Valenciennes, d. 1444, Tournai)
Oil on wood, 87 x 70 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon
The Nativity is the most famous work of the Master (Robert Campin). It is unusual in that it juxtaposes on a single panel three distinct episodes from the life of Christ: the Nativity proper, the legend of the midwives, and the adoration of the shepherds.
The child and his parents are shown on the threshold of a rather ramshackle wooden stable. The thatched roof has a hole in it and the walls are dilapidated, revealing the ox and the ass, who, untypically for such a composition, have turned their backs on the newborn infant, rather than drawing near to warm him with their breath. The Virgin is kneeling, her hands held out in a gesture of adoration and her eyes lowered. At her feet, the Christ Child lies on the bare earth, radiant with light.
Joseph, who had been a figure of mockery throughout the Middle Ages and even as recently as Broederlam, is here presented as a venerable old man. He holds a candle in one hand, and with the other shelters its flame from the wind. In the foreground, on the right of the composition, are the two midwives who, according to an apocryphal Gospel, were summoned by Joseph in a moment of anxiety. Behind this first group, the upper part of a stable door has swung wide open to reveal the three shepherds, seemingly prevented from approaching any closer by awe and respect.
Hovering above the scene are four angels. As if exempted from the laws of gravity, they sweep past borne on the wind. They are holding phylacteries, on one of which is written a message. It is addressed to one of the midwives, whose right hand is paralysed: "Tangue puerum et sanabaris" ("touch the child and you shall be healed"). As in the art of the Van Eyck brothers, Campin's painting is minutely detailed in its realism. Light is an important stylistic and symbolic element: the candle which St Joseph holds alight even though it is day reminds the viewer that Jesus was born during the night, and that darkness gave way suddenly to light, as the laws of nature were overturned.
The most striking element in this Nativity, however, is certainly the extended landscape that spreads out behind the stable. Beyond the two midwives, a rutted track running beside a stream leads the eye deep into the picture space. The track is bordered by pollarded willows and tall trees with fine branches. A path joins the track and leads across a meadow surrounded by a wicker fence. A man and a woman are walking along the path; they are wearing capes and are accompanied by a peasant woman carrying a basket of eggs on her head. Further on is a large farmhouse, its yard surrounded by high walls, and beyond this again lies a village with its houses, a lake nestling between hills and a small farm with vineyards perched on a slope. To the left of these stands a town with many splendid buildings, above which a small castle sits perched on a rocky outcrop. It is winter, but the sun is still visible between two mountain peaks, its ray spreading out from the golden disk in a symbol of renewal and redemption.