It’s been a bit rubbish lately hasn’t it. As such I have been struggling for inspiration to write, but I can’t let Christmas slip by without writing about why we all celebrate this day (supposedly). This year, the message of this painting might be particularly important, especially for those who are in the UK, and face not seeing family or friends over Christmas due to the mutant strain of COVID-19.
I have written about Caravaggio previously, as he features highly on my list of favourite artists, but I have picked this painting, as it is a break from the nativity norm. You all know what I mean…The Virgin Mary dressed in blue, with a circle of light behind her head, Joseph is somewhere near by. Jesus is in the manger, with a brighter than bright halo, there are some shepherds and some wise men, and all the animal look into the manger. It is something we all recognise but maybe we don’t particularly identify with it. After all I don’t think that there are many of us who have travelled on the back of a donkey for 90 miles to go for a census, only to find your partner didn’t book the hotel, and the best you can do is a stable with some oxen, only for you to then give birth and a bunch of strangers pop out of nowhere to give you gifts.
This painting shuns the convention of the usual nativity scene for many reasons.
Mary and Joseph
You will have noticed very quickly, that Mary and Joseph are in clothing which is totally unnatural to the time and place that this should have happened. Caravaggio has taken artistic licence to bring this scene to his own time, dressing them in the italian styles of the time. You can See Mary, sat on the floor, behind the manger staring at her newly born child. Usually Mary would be seated on a hay bale, or she is kneeling next to the manger, but Caravaggio chose to show her in a relaxed and natural position. With her on the floor with her child, it can be interpreted that she is humble and of a meagre background (not that giving birth in a stable gave that away). While Mary might be indicating her poor background, she looks a lot more glamorous than we are used to. She has a glowing complexion and her hair has been scooped back. Finally there is an element of sexual femininity as her dress falls from her shoulder. We rarely think of Mary being a sexual being – having a virgin birth and all, but here, there is something slightly seductive about her, perhaps to make the audience remember that she isn’t just the mother of the son of god.
Joseph also isn’t really what we usually expect. He is younger and a bit more muscular. Placed in the front right of the painting we don’t see his face, rather his short blonde hair as he turns to talk to the figures to the right of him.
The child is shown in a low manger, with very little straw and just a cloth beneath him. He is naked and watching his mother, showing the vulnerability of the newborn child. There is no halo, and actually, at a glance, you could be completely forgiven for thinking this is just any old couple that had a baby and had to put it on the floor.
For me, the vulnerability shown in the child, is potentially indicative of the vulnerabilities of modern life. This scene is comforting and touching, which draws its audience to identify with the family unit, but are you willing to invest time in following the struggles of this particular family on the basis of this image. We know that Jesus, in the biblical stories, went through all manner of persecution and trials, and this painting is almost a question from Caravaggio about if you are willing to follow a belief that this family went through all of its struggles, surviving with perseverance and love.
The three strangers
To the left of the family unit there is what I am assuming is a shepherd, accompanied by an oxen. I think that this is simply the artist trying to keep some semblance of the original story within his own interpretation of the scene.
To the right, we see two more men, who are identified in the title of the painting. Francis of Assisi and St Lawrence. This is unusual as neither were born at the time Jesus was born. So why would Caravaggio include them? Caravaggio was many things, but he wasn’t silly. As it transpires, the painting was commissioned by the Company of St. Francis, a lay apostolate who were in charge of the Oratory of St Lawrence in Palermo. When the company started restoration work of the oratory in 1608, they commissioned Caravaggio with the painting, with the request that their favourite saints were included. Caravaggio obviously complied, but what this gives to the audience is a feeling that in this moment, the unusual family gathered around the newborn incorporates those who were not yet born. We know that at the crucifiction of Jesus, it is said that he gave his life to save humanity. This was for all of humanity rather than just what happened to be around at the time, therefore the inclusion of these figures provides a representation of Jesus’s suffering for those to come as well as those past.
The only indication that this is a holy scene, is the angel above, holding a banner which says “Gloria in Eccelsis”. This replaces all the holy light and travellers who followed a star. Caravaggio worked very hard to make this scene more relatable to the audiences of the time, and to some extent this still works today.
Where is the painting now?
It is believed that this painting was completed in the last year of Caravaggio’s life. The painting was 2.7 metres tall by 2 metre wide. On the completion of the restorations of the oratory, this was hung in the alter.
In 1969, the painting was stolen, and a lot of mystery revolves around this, but it is classed as one of the top ten art crimes to have ever happened. On October 17th the painting was cut from its frame and stolen along with a carpet from the alter, which police believe the thieves used to wrap up the painting.
There are many theories about the theft, but each involve the mafia at some point. A few weeks prior to the robbery, the value of the painting was discussed on a TV show which was broadcast. The value was estimated at £20 million. Some feel that it was amateurs that stole the painting that night, whereas others feel that it was stolen on commission. As the story goes, if it was stolen on commission, the collector who it was going to, was so upset by the damage that it ended up being sold to the mafia. The more likely theory is that amatures stole it, as they knew the oratory was only guarded by an old janitor, and shortly after it was removed from the premises it was intercepted by the mafia.
From there it was said to have moved around mafia bosses for a while, some who used it as a rug and others who showed it off at business meetings. At some point Gerlando Alberti attempted a sale of the piece, but was arrested before the sale went through. He was said to have buried the painting, along with his cash and stash of drugs, but when the FBI were shown the location of where he had buried these items, no painting was found.
In 2009 a mafia informant said that the painting had been destroyed in the 1980s. He explained that while he was in prison with Filippo Gravino in 1999, they discussed the painting and Gravino had said that it was hidden in a barn for safe keeping, but rats and pigs had damaged it so much that eventually it was burned.
In 2018 another another informant told the FBI that it was sold to a swiss collector by the Head of the Sicilian Mafia Commission, but the painting was cut into sections for transportation.
Other theories include that it was sold to a collector in Europe or South Africa, or that it was destroyed in an earthquake. Whichever story you believe, the painting to this day is yet to be found.
In 2015, Sky commissioned a reproduction of the painting to be made by Factum Arte. They are known for their specialist techniques to produce high quality reproductions. Sky produced a documentary on the making of the reproduction and it was finally hung in its rightful place on the 12th December 2015.
It is amazing that this painting was reproduced so well from photographs of its last restoration and the company studying other paintings completed by Caravaggio to determine his style.
All I now really have left to say is Merry Christmas, I hope that you are all staying safe and that you can make the best of it despite how you may be celebrating it.
What do you see within this painting? Why not tell me in the comments? Like this article? Why not share it?