A Month of Christmas: The Nativity and the Grabow Altarpiece

Germany – Scott #B604 (1982)

Taking a look through my Christmas stamps in preparation for this “Month of Christmas” series, I noticed that the vast majority show scenes from the Nativity with significantly more images of the Madonna and Child than the Adoration of the Magi or the Adoration of the Shepherds. Portrayals of Santa Claus, gifts, Christmas trees, and reindeer are in the minority. Ironically, I have never been a very religious person but I do love the art! For the purposes of this series of articles on A Stamp A Day, I have decided that rather than trying to choose a single “representative” Madonna and Child, etc. I will highlight different aspects of the Nativity using the stamps as my guides. The Nativity of Jesus has been a major subject of Christian art since the 4th century and in philately since the 1960s.

The artistic depictions of the Nativity or birth of Jesus, celebrated at Christmas, are based on the narratives in the Bible, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and further elaborated by written, oral and artistic tradition. Christian art includes a great many representations of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Such works are generally referred to as the “Madonna and Child” or “Virgin and Child”. They are not usually representations of the Nativity specifically, but are often devotional objects representing a particular aspect or attribute of the Virgin Mary, or Jesus. Nativity pictures, on the other hand, are specifically illustrative, and include many narrative details; they are a normal component of the sequences illustrating both the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin.

Nativity of Jesus, by Sabdri Botticelli, fresco transferred to canvas between circa 1473 and circa 1475. Currently at Columbia Museum of Art.

The Nativity has been depicted in many different media, both pictorial and sculptural. Pictorial forms include murals, panel paintings, manuscript illuminations, stained glass windows and oil paintings. The subject of the Nativity is often used for altarpieces, many of these combining both painted and sculptural elements. Other sculptural representations of the Nativity include ivory miniatures, carved stone sarcophagi, architectural features such as capitals and door lintels, and free standing sculptures.

Free-standing sculptures may be grouped into a Nativity scene (crib, creche or presepe) within or outside a church, home, public place or natural setting. The scale of the figures may range from miniature to life-sized. These Nativity scenes probably derived from acted tableau vivants in Rome, although Saint Francis of Assisi gave the tradition a great boost. This tradition continues to this day, with small versions made of porcelain, plaster, plastic or cardboard sold for display in the home. The acted scenes evolved into the Nativity play.

Master of Vyšší Brod, Mistr Vyšebrodský, a Bohemian master, circa 1350. The influence of Italian Byzantine painting was strong in the court of Charles IV. Currently at Národni Galerie in Prague, Czech Republic.

The birth of Jesus is described in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. The two accounts agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the time of Herod the Great, that his mother Mary was married to Joseph, who was of Davidic descent and was not his biological father, and that his birth was effected by divine intervention, but the two gospels agree on little else. Matthew does not mention the census, annunciation to the shepherds or presentation in the Temple, and does not give the name of the angel that appeared to Joseph to foretell the birth. In Luke there is no mention of Magi, no flight into Egypt, or Massacre of the Innocents, and the angel who announces the coming birth to Mary is named (as Gabriel).

The consensus of scholars is that both gospels were written about AD 75-85, and while it is possible that one account might be based on the other, or that the two share common source material, the majority conclusion is that, in respect of the nativity story, the two are independent of each other.

In Christian theology, the nativity marks the birth of Jesus in fulfillment of the divine will of God, to save the world from sin. Artistic depictions of the nativity scene since the 13th century have emphasized the humility of Jesus and promoted a more tender image of him, as a major turning point from the early “Lord and Master” image, mirroring changes in the common approaches taken by Christian pastoral ministry.

Christians of the Eastern Orthodox Church and Oriental Orthodox Church observe a similar season, sometimes called Advent but also called the “Nativity Fast”, which begins forty days before Christmas. Some Eastern Orthodox Christians (e.g. Greeks and Syrians) celebrate Christmas on December 25. Other Orthodox (e.g. Copts, Ethiopians, Georgians, and Russians) celebrate Christmas on (the Gregorian) January 7 (Koiak 29 on coptic calendar) as a result of their churches continuing to follow the Julian calendar, rather than the modern day Gregorian calendar.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Photo taken by Darko Tepert Donatus on December 24, 2005.

The date of birth for Jesus of Nazareth is not stated in the gospels or in any secular text, but a majority of scholars assume a date between 6 BC and 4 BC. The historical evidence is too ambiguous to allow a definitive dating, but the date has been estimated through known historical events mentioned in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew or by working backwards from the estimated start of the ministry of Jesus. Luke 2:1 states that Jesus was born when “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.” All that is generally accepted is that Jesus was born before 4 BC, the year of Herod’s death.

The Gospels of both Matthew and Luke place the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Although Matthew does not explicitly state Joseph’s place of origin or where he lived prior to the birth of Jesus, the account implies that the family lived in Bethlehem, and explains that they later settled in Nazareth. However, Luke 1:26–27 clearly states that Mary lived in Nazareth before the birth of Jesus, at the time of the Annunciation.

The Gospel of Luke states that Mary gave birth to Jesus and placed him in a manger “because there was no place for them in the inn”, but does not say exactly where Jesus was born. The Greek word kataluma may be translated as either “inn” or “guestroom”, and some scholars have speculated that Joseph and Mary may have sought to stay with relatives, rather than at an inn, only to find the house full, whereupon they resorted to the shelter of a room with a manger. This could be a place to keep the sheep within the Bethlehem area, called Migdal Eder (“tower of flock”) as prophesied by prophet Micah in Micah 4:8.

In the 2nd century, Justin Martyr stated that Jesus had been born in a cave outside the town, while the Protoevangelium of James described a legendary birth in a cave nearby. The Church of the Nativity inside the town, built by St. Helena, contains the cave-manger site traditionally venerated as the birthplace of Jesus, which may have originally been a site of the cult of the god Tammuz. In Contra Celsum 1.51, Origen, who from around 215 traveled throughout Palestine, wrote of the “manger of Jesus”.

A page from an 11th-century Gospel of Matthew, the Bamberg Apocalypse, with large decorated initial “E”. Text from Matthew 1:18-21. Currently in the Staatsbibliothek Bamberg in the Free State of Bavaria, Germany.

The scope of the subject matter which relates to the Nativity story begins with the genealogy of Jesus as listed in the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke. This lineage, or family tree is often depicted visually with a Tree of Jesse, springing from the side of Jesse, the father of King David.

The Gospels go on to relate that a virgin, Mary, was betrothed to a man Joseph, but before she became fully his wife, an angel appeared to her, announcing that she would give birth to a baby who would be the Son of God. This incident, referred to as the Annunciation is often depicted in art. Matthew’s Gospel relates that an angel dispelled Joseph’s distress at discovering Mary’s pregnancy, and instructed him to name the child Jesus (meaning “God saves”). This scene is depicted only occasionally.

In Luke’s Gospel, Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem, the family of Joseph’s ancestors, to be listed in a tax census; the Journey to Bethlehem is a very rare subject in the West, but shown in some large Byzantine cycles. While there, Mary gave birth to the infant, in a stable, because there was no room available in the inns. At this time, an angel appeared to shepherds on a hillside, telling them that the “Saviour, Christ the Lord” was born. The shepherds went to the stable and found the baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the feed trough, or “manger”, as the angel had described.

The Adoration of the Kings by the Early Netherlandish painter Gerard David (circa 1460 – 1523) is a painting in oil on panel, probably from after 1515, now in the National Gallery in London (NG 1079). The painted surface measures some 60 by 59.2 centimetres (23.6 in × 23.3 in), and the panel is about 2 centimetres (0.79 in) larger in both dimensions. The panel comes from a dismantled altarpiece from which one other panel appears to survive, the Lamentation that is also in the National Gallery (NG 1078).[2]

The narrative is taken up in the Gospel of Matthew, and relates that “wise men” from the east saw a star, and followed it, believing it would lead them to a new-born king. On arriving in Jerusalem, they proceed to the palace where a king might be found and enquire from the resident despot, King Herod. Herod is worried about being supplanted, but he sends them out, asking them return when they have found the child.

They follow the star to Bethlehem, where they give the child gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The men are then warned in a dream that Herod wished to kill the child, and so return to their country another way. Although the gospel mentions neither the number nor the status of the wise men, known as “the Magi”, tradition has extrapolated that since there were three gifts, there were three wise men, who are generally also given the rank of king, and so they are also called the “Three Kings”. It is as kings that they are almost always depicted in art after about 900. There are a number of subjects but the Adoration of the Magi, when they present their gifts, and, in Christian tradition, worship Jesus, has always been much the most popular.

Either the Annunciation to the Shepherds by the angel, or the Adoration of the Shepherds, which shows the shepherds worshipping the infant Christ, have often been combined with the Nativity proper, and the visit of the Magi, since very early times. The former represented the spreading of the message of Christ to the Jewish people, and the latter to the heathen peoples.

There are also many detailed series of artworks, ranging from stained glass to carved capitals to fresco cycles that depict every aspect of the story, which formed part of both of the two most popular subjects for cycles: the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin. It is also one of the Twelve Great Feasts of Eastern Orthodoxy, a popular cycle in Byzantine art.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, sometimes still known as the Allendale Nativity, after a former owner, is a painting by the Italian Renaissance painter Giorgione, completed in about 1505 to 1510. The attribution is now usual, although not universal; the usual other view is that it is an early Titian. It is certainly a Venetian painting of that period. It is displayed in the National Gallery of Art of Washington, D.C., United States.

The story continues with King Herod asking his advisers about ancient prophesies describing the birth of such a child. As a result of their advice, he sends soldiers to kill every boy child under the age of two in the city of Bethlehem. Joseph has been warned in a dream, and flees to Egypt with Mary and the baby, Jesus. The gruesome scene of the Massacre of the Innocents, as the murder of the babies is generally referred, was particularly depicted by Early Renaissance and Baroque painters. The Flight into Egypt was another popular subject, showing Mary with the baby on a donkey, led by Joseph (borrowing the older iconography of the rare Byzantine Journey to Bethlehem).

From the 15th century in the Netherlands onwards, it was more usual to show the non-Biblical subject of the Holy Family resting on the journey, the Rest on the Flight to Egypt, often accompanied by angels, and in earlier images sometimes an older boy who may represent, James the Brother of the Lord, interpreted as a son of Joseph, by a previous marriage. The background to these scenes usually (until the Council of Trent tightened up on such additions to scripture) includes a number of apocryphal miracles, and gives an opportunity for the emerging genre of landscape painting.

In the Miracle of the Corn the pursuing soldiers interrogate peasants, asking when the Holy Family passed by. The peasants truthfully say it was when they were sowing their wheat seed; however the wheat has miraculously grown to full height. In the Miracle of the Idol a pagan statue falls from its plinth as the infant Jesus passes by, and a spring gushes up from the desert (originally separate, these are often combined). In further, less commonly seen, legends a group of robbers abandon their plan to rob the travelers, and a date palm tree bends down to allow them to pluck the fruit.

Another subject is the meeting of the infant Jesus with his cousin, the infant John the Baptist, who, according to legend was rescued from Bethlehem before the massacre by the Archangel Uriel, and joined the Holy Family in Egypt. This meeting of the two Holy Children was to be painted many artists during the Renaissance period, after being popularized by Leonardo da Vinci and then Raphael.

The Madonna of Palazzo Medici-Riccardi is a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Filippo Lippi. It is housed in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi of Florence, central Italy. The painting was found by art historian Giuseppe Poggi in 1907 in the psychiatric hospital of San Salvi in Florence. There are several theories about the provenance of the panel: Poggi assigned it to the Villa of Castelpulci, owned by the Riccardi family, who bought Palazzo Medici in 1655. According to another, the Madonna was instead part of the original decoration of the palace. After having been acquired by the Italian state, it was moved to Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, where now is displayed in the Hall of the Triumphs and Arts in the first floor, near the gallery of Luca Giordano. It has been restored in 2001 by the Opificio delle Pietre Dure. The model of the painting had been used by Lippi since as early as 1436: it portrays the Madonna’s half-bust in a niche with a shell-shaped dome, holding the Child; in this case, he stands on a marble parapet. The style is however typical of his late career, not far from the frescoes in the Cathedral of Spoleto, and is thus generally considered one of the artists’ last panels. The rear of the panel has a drawing with St. Jerome’s head.

A Madonna is a representation of Mary, either alone or with her child Jesus. These images are central icons for both the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The word is from Italian ma donna, meaning ‘my lady’. The Madonna and Child type is very prevalent in Christian iconography, divided into many traditional subtypes especially in Eastern Orthodox iconography, often known after the location of a notable icon of the type, such as the Theotokos of Vladimir, Agiosoritissa, Blachernitissa, etc., or descriptive of the depicted posture, as in Hodegetria, Eleusa, etc.

The term Madonna in the sense of “picture or statue of the Virgin Mary” enters English usage in the 17th century, primarily in reference to works of the Italian Renaissance. In an Eastern Orthodox context, such images are typically known as Theotokos. “Madonna” may be generally used of representations of Mary, with or without the infant Jesus, is the focus and central figure of the image, possibly flanked or surrounded by angels or saints. Other types of Marian imagery have a narrative context, depicting scenes from the Life of the Virgin, e.g. the Annunciation to Mary, are not typically called “Madonna”.

The earliest depictions of Mary date to Early Christianity (2nd to 3rd centuries), found in the Catacombs of Rome. These are in a narrative context. The classical “Madonna” or “Theotokos” imagery develops from the 5th century, as Marian devotion rose to great importance after the Council of Ephesus formally affirmed her status as “Mother of God or Theotokos (“God-bearer”) in 431. The Theotokos iconography as it developed in the 6th to 8th century rose to great importance in the high medieval period (12th to 14th centuries) both in the Eastern Orthodox and in the Latin spheres. According to a tradition recorded in the 8th century, Marian iconography goes back to a portrait drawn from life by Luke the Evangelist, with a number of icons (such as the Panagia Portaitissa) claimed to either represent this original icon or to be a direct copy of it. In the Western tradition, depictions of the Madonna were greatly diversified by Renaissance masters such as Duccio, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, Giovanni Bellini, Caravaggio and Rubens (and further by certain modernists, such as Salvador Dalí and Henry Moore) while Eastern Orthodox iconography adheres more closely to the inherited traditional types.

Berlin – Scott #9NB197 and Germany – Scott #B604 (1982) first day cover

Many nations have issued stamp depicting various scenes of the Nativity with Germany tending to use earlier artwork than either the United States or Great Britain. Scott #B604, a semi-postal stamp released on November 10, 1982, depicts a portion of the Grabow Altarpiece (also known as the Petri Altar) that was painted by Master Bertram around 1379-1383. There were 11,166,000 copies of the stamp printed by offset lithography, perforated 13¾ x 14, with a 80-pfennig denomination and 40-pfennig surtax. It portrays an image of the Nativity from the oak altar. In conjunction with Germany’s Scott #B604, a similar stamp depicting the Adoration of the Magi from the altarpiece was released by Berlin (Scott #9NB197) denominated 50+20 pfennig with the same specifications; there were 8,954,000 copies of the Berliner stamp issued.

The Grabow Altarpiece also includes the earliest known depiction of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt (lower row, last section on the right). Originally located in St. Peter’s Church (Hauptkirche St. Petri) and measuring 104.7 inches (266 centimeters) tall by 23.8 feet (726 centimeters) wide, it is now in the Hamburger Kunsthalle the art museum of the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg, Germany. It is one of the largest museums in the country.

The high altarpiece is a polyptych consisting of a corpus (or central shrine), two sets of wings, a predella, and, at one time, a wooden superstructure as well. Unlike a fixed altarpiece, those fitted with wings were opened and closed, usually to complement liturgical practices. The interior, displayed on special feast days, was the most precious setting. The corpus was frequently reserved for polychromed sculpture. Mater Bertram’s central Crucifixion is flanked by rows of saints and prophets, most identified by their accompanying attributes. The middle setting, comprising the exterior of the two inner wings and the inside of the two outer wings, was usually exhibited on Sundays. These form a tableau of twenty-four painted scenes.

The Grabow Altarpiece, exterior showing sculptures. Photo taken at Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg, Germany.
Interior of the winged Grabower Altarpiece of St. Peter’s Church in Hamburg (Flügelaltarbildnis des Grabower Altars der Hamburger St. Petrikirche).

The altarpiece was a collaborative product involving Master Bertram, the designer, who with assistants painted the panels and polychromed the statues which an unknown Hamburg sculptor carved.

The Web Gallery of Art describes the Petri Altar as follows:

When the first wings of the altarpiece are opened, twenty-four painted panels, a solid screen of colour, are displayed with narratives placed in two rows, one over the other.

In the top row on the left, the story of the Creation begins with the Separation of Light and Darkness, and it continues through the top twelve panels to the to the Expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Paradise and the Labour of the First Parents on the right. The lower register resumes the drama of Genesis across six panels with the stories of the Offering of Cain and Abel, the Murder of Abel, the Building of the Ark, the Sacrifice of Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and Jacob’s Blessing. The final six paintings are dedicated to the Infancy of Christ, from the Annunciation to the Rest on the Flight into Egypt in the lower right.

Rignt wing (inside) of the Grabower Altarpiece by Meister Bertram von Minden, circa 1379-1383.
Detail from the Grabow Altarpiece showing the Nativity as reproduced on Germany’s 1982 Christmas stamp (Scott #B604).

The attention to realistic detail, as well as the thematic scope of the altarpiece, which embraces the whole of the biblical spectrum, from good to evil and obedience to violence, point to a private patron, identified as Wilhelm Horborch, a member of an old patrician family in Hamburg. It was presumably he who was responsible for the iconographic program. His brother, Bertram Horborch, was mayor of the city from 1366 to 1396 and maintained close relations with Emperor Charles IV in Prague and the pope in Avignon. The work may have been commissioned by both brothers.

The connection with Bohemia is significant. Master Bertram may have spent his apprenticeship with a Bohemian master in Prague. This would certainly explain the Bohemian colouring of his work. The commission for the Hamburg altarpiece may well have reached him when he was still working in Prague.”

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