(b. 1571, Caravaggio, d. 1610, Porto Ercole)

Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence

Oil on canvas, 268 x 197 cm
Formerly in Oratorio di San Lorenzo, Palermo

The painting representing the Nativity was stolen in October 1969 from the church of San Lorenzo in Palermo, where it had been since it was made. The composition is less successful than in other cases; the contained and pensive atmosphere, however, shows that at this stage Caravaggio associated the idea of advent of Christ not with the joy of Redemption but with a future that was at best uncertain.

Under the roof of the stable in Bethlehem, whose side walls are disappearing into brownish darkness, shepherds and saints gathered to worship the newborn Christ-child in such a way that we can make out Archdeacon Lawrence on the left only after a second look, and viewers may well mistake St Francis for a shepherd. One figure, the patron, represents the church for which the picture was intended, and the other, the Order to which the church belongs. We cannot be entirely sure who Joseph, the foster-father, is.

The center of the picture is shared out between the figures who have come to worship. The naked Christ-child lies there on a bed of straw and some white drapery. Exhausted, the Holy Virgin is crouching on the ground behind him - wearing an unusually cut dress, which is falling from her right shoulder - looking at the child. The ox, which appears behind St Lawrence, is also looking in that direction. Above all this, an angel is flying down from heaven. In his left hand he is holding a banner on which the words of the gloria are written. His right hand is pointing upwards, as if, by also looking at the baby, he wanted to reassure the Christ-child that he really is the Son of God.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.