Leaf from a Book of Hours:
The Nativity (Office of the Virgin, Prime),
Ink, tempera, and gold on vellum
The Jeanne Miles Blackburn Collection [Cat. no. 39]
Representing God's entry into the world, the Nativity remains one of medieval painting's most poignant Christian images. In the Gospels, only Matthew and Luke directly described this event. Perhaps the brevity and absence of detail in these texts allowed artists to devote so much creativity to amplifying the Christmas story. This miniature is made compelling by its simplicity. Only the three principals-Mary, Joseph, and the newly born Christ Child-appear in the scene. The Virgin kneels before an elegant canopied bed made sumptuous by a richly embroidered textile, which stands in contrast to the nearby rustic fence and receding landscape.
This scene probably follows the mystical visions of St. Bridget of Sweden who visited Bethlehem in 1370, and whose written accounts circulated widely after her canonization in 1391: "When her time came she took off her shoes and her white cloak and undid her veil. . . . Then she made ready the swaddling clothes which she put down beside her. When all was ready she bent her knees and began to pray. While she was thus praying with hands raised the child was suddenly born, surrounded by a light so bright that it completely eclipsed Joseph's feeble candle."