2012: Advent Art History: Naked Baby Jesus, December 02

by on December 2, 2012

Welcome to the Naked Baby Jesus Advent Calendar, Day Two!

This is one of my favourite paintings of the late fourteenth century. There are many reasons I love this work, and the way the infant Christ clasps hold of St Simeon’s beard is only one of them.

The Presentation in the Temple

Melchior Broederlam

Tempera on wood, c.1393-99

This is a detail from the interior left wing of a triptych known as the Dijon Altarpiece (because it was commissioned for the Carthusian Monastery in Dijon).

The left wing is this odd shape because it formed part of a pair that flanked a central panel. Sadly, that central panel has been lost.

The left wing shows a scene from Luke Chapter 2, verses 25 – 32. After getting Jesus circumcised, Mary and Joseph take him to the Temple in Jerusalem to present him, as was customary. At the temple, there was a guy called Simeon, who has been told that before he dies he will lay eyes on the Savior. And he does, and promptly dies happy.

In the painting, Mary is handing over Jesus to St Simeon, while Joseph looks on. The woman behind them holds their offering of a pair of turtle doves in a basket.

This altarpiece was made almost a century before Leonardo’s Madonna Litta from yesterday. A lot of people nowadays tend to judge a work of art by how ‘realistic’ it is – and this is nowhere near as realistic as Leonardo’s work. Only, when the Dijon Altarpiece was painted, naturalistic representation (what most people would think of as ‘realism’, although art historians avoid using that term as it’s so problematic) just wasn’t fashionable. Stylisation was fashionable – draped garments with lots of folds, standard face-shapes and hand gestures and forms for plants and animals, the use of gold leaf. So we can’t look at this painting and judge it according to our own set of criteria concerning what’s ‘good’ in art, we have to think about what people at the time would have valued.

The Dijon Altarpiece is generally regarded as one of the most important works in the development of artistic style in the decades before the Northern Renaissance (think Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden – their works are quintessential Northern Renaissance).

One of the most significant markers of this is the landscape. Earlier paintings usually used a sold gold background, but this has a landscape with rocks and grass and trees and a road. Sure, it’s nothing like the landscape we saw out of the windows in the Madonna Litta – this is a highly stylised landscape painted to serve the purpose of the story, and it retains a golden sky. But it shows how fashions have changed from the C14th to the C15th. The landscape is coming into vogue in the 1390s in Northern Europe, and it was a fashion that will crop up again and again in paintings in this advent calendar.

[A quick note about the wording I’m using. I talk about this in terms of changing fashion, where readers might be more familiar with people saying ‘it was a step towards a more naturalistic style’ or words to that effect.

I wouldn’t say it’s a move ‘towards’ anything, because we have no evidence that painters of the International Gothic style thought that way. They didn’t know what would come after them, and we can’t say they were striving to forge an artistic future containing the likes of Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling. They worked within their own time, almost certainly striving to be the best at what they did, that’s all.

It is only with hindsight that we can see this work as a link between stylised Gothic and the Northern Renaissance, so when we talk about their place in art history, we must be careful not to assign intentions to them that they may not have had.]

Leave a Reply