Oil on canvas, c. 1610, by Orazio Gentileschi, (1563 – 1639)
For the week of Christmas, a scene of the nativity. This is one of several encompassing the iconography of the Madonna/Child duo in the gallery, but for me the most strikingly beautiful and transcendentally prescient. The chiaroscuro aspect contrasting the stark black background with the well-lit subject, though popular in Italian painting of this period, is unusual for compositions depicting the nativity: they are mostly overladen with unnecessary allusions to heavenly hosts and ecstatic fluttering angels. If some of art’s power rests in its ability to invoke the real and absolute even in that which is metaphysical and abstract, then one way to kill the pretence is to overstate the blatantly fantastical, but Gentileschi’s genius here is to desist sartorial overstatement for the stark even brutal void of black which is what we actually encounter (if we are honest) when we contemplate the spiritual and the sublime. From this blackness, this resolute dark, the presence of the Creator radiates. It is in seeing nothing, in observing an absolute abyss, that faith becomes palpable: it’s in believing something is there when it is not evidenced in any other physical or sensory manner.
According to the curator, Gentileschi was a contemporary of Caravaggio and likely to have been heavily influenced by his more noted rival. The Christ child’s forearms here share the same muscular overdevelopment as Cupid in Caravaggio’s Amor Vincit Omina, for instance, and render a fallible and slightly unattractive humanness to the infant. And there is certainly something very Caravaggesque in the staged theatricality which foregrounds a very close-cropped figure of the Madonna, brilliantly lit and resplendent in lush and slightly pretentious costume: the mustardy satin texture of her dress captures well the earthy tincture which may be an allusion to all three of the Magi’s gifts to the new-born, but it also strips her of some of her humility, the arduous poverty of her journey. This seems to be a knowing Mary, charged with the foreknowledge of her own mourning, a mother already aware that the fate of her son is to die in her lifetime. As such there is something stoically regal in her presence which has outstripped the humble origins of the nativity birth scene. This symbolism is accentuated by the golden transparent veil she draws across the Christ child’s face which conveys a heavenly, celestial quality to him, as if his later ascension is already somehow in progress, and this is further foreshadowed by the white swaddling cloth he lies in which may also equally double as a newly discarded burial shroud: this is a nativity painting, then, doubling as a Pietà, incorporating the life-death binary which is inevitable to us all as an existential reality.
But of course Christ achieves the audacious, the inhuman, the miraculous: he rises from death bodily where we mortals remain lifeless. He does not do so as an act of mere spiritual supremacy but, according to Christian scripture, to take from us the weight of our sins. The child depicted here clasps the forbidden fruit of original sin in his left hand and suddenly we are left to contemplate a whole other possibility to this painting, even an entirely new reading of it: yes, the Christ child is clutching our sin in the palm of his hand and will cleanse us of it, but it is equally possible to regard this child as a depiction of either Cain or Abel and the Madonna figure as Eve, the forbidden fruit, the damnation of sin to come, being planted in the hand of the descendent of first man, the first sinner. Seeing this dual possibility only acts to cement the power of the painting’s meaning: in this mother-child union, we are given a glimpse not only of the fall of man, but of the rise of man too. As such we see something of our own struggles, the burdens and temptations of life, but also in the potential of re-birth, regeneration, renaissance, absolution and ultimate salvation which the purity of the child alone (any infant, any infant creature) carries for us. Out of the impenetrable darkness, then, it is hope which Gentileschi has so well illuminated for us.
Image courtesy of the Fogg Museum, Harvard University.