Reclining Madonnas: Changing Iconography of the Nativity of Jesus

Every year when I teach Gothic architecture in Origins of the West,1 I spend two classes on Chartres cathedral. The first day is devoted to the architecture; the second to the decoration, in both sculpture and stained glass. For sculpture, I focus on the west portal, specifically on the Portal of the Incarnation. This consists of a large tympanum featuring the Madonna Enthroned with Angels, surrounded by archivolts with personifications of the 7 liberal arts (one of the reasons I chose this particular portal).

The Portal of the Incarnation, on the west facade of Chartres cathedral.

Below the tympanum are two lintels with scenes from the life of Mary and Jesus. In the bottom register, from left to right, are found the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, and the Adoration of the Shepherds.

Closeup of the lintels. The Circumcision of Jesus is in the upper register, in the center. In the lower register, reading left to right, are the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity (center), and the Adoration of the Shepherds.

Today (naturally) I want to concentrate on the Nativity.

Detail of the Nativity in the Portal of the Incarnation, Chartres Cathedral.

Notice the iconography: Mary is reclining on a low couch underneath what looks like a dining room table; a swaddled Jesus sits on top of the table; Joseph stands to the left and an angel is on the right. One of the things I point out to my students is the Eucharistic imagery of putting the body of Jesus on a table—especially since the scene directly above, in the upper register, is the Circumcision, where the infant Jesus is cut (and presumably bleeds) by a priest at an altar.

What I always found curious, however, is the representation of Mary lying on the bed. Mind you, this would have been a sensible thing for her to do, having just given birth. For a long time I assumed that this iconography was unique to this sculpture, but then I discovered that Mary is in the same reclining position in the Incarnation window, a stained-glass window in the west façade of the cathedral.

The Nativity of Jesus, in the Incarnation window, west facade, Chartres Cathedral.

So maybe it was a regional peculiarity, I thought. After all, I know what Nativity scenes look like—I’ve got one that I set up every year, that was given to my mother as a child. Maybe you have one too, or you’ve seen them set up in churches or parks.  Mary is always depicted kneeling, looking down at her child, who is lying in a manger set on the ground.

My nativity scene, given to my mother when she was a child.

My regional hypothesis was disproved, however, when I discovered another instance of a reclining Madonna in the Nativity scene in the Sienese painter Duccio’s Maestà altarpiece of 1308. In this one, she appears to be resting on a giant red beanbag chair (ok, I guess it’s probably a blanket or a cloak). A google image search turns up further medieval examples.

So it appears that it was quite commonplace in the Middle Ages for Mary to be depicted lying down after the birth of Jesus. How do we account for my mother’s Nativity set, then? When and why did the iconography of the Nativity change from the reclining Madonna to a kneeling Madonna?

The answers are, in the late 14th century, and because of St Birgitta of Sweden.2 Birgitta Birgersdottir was born into the Swedish nobility in 1302 or 1303. She married Ulf Gudmarsson at age 13 and bore 8 children. After her husband’s death, she felt called to a spiritual life and began having revelations, which were recorded by her confessors. She made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1350 and remained there, never returning to Sweden. Like her contemporary Catherine of Siena (whom she probably never met), she was a prophetic voice for the reform of the Church, in particular advocating for the return of the papacy to Rome from Avignon.3

In 1372, the year before she died, Birgitta made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. In Bethlehem, she had a vision of the Nativity of Jesus, described in book VII of her Revelations:

. . . the Virgin knelt with great reverence, putting herself at prayer, and she kept her back toward the manger and her face lifted to heaven toward the east. And so, with raised hands and with her eyes intent on heaven, she was as if suspended in an ecstasy of contemplation, inebriated with divine sweetness. And while she was thus in prayer, I saw the One lying in her womb then move; and then and there, in a moment and the twinkling of an eye, she gave birth to a Son, from whom there went out such great and ineffable splendor that the sun could not be compared to it. . . . I saw that glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing in the greatest of neatness. . . .

When therefore the Virgin felt that she had now given birth, at once, having bowed her head and joined her hands, with great dignity and reverence she adored the boy and said to him: “Welcome, my God, my Lord, and my Son!”

From Birgitta of Sweden: Life and Selected Revelations, ed. Marguerite Tjader Harris, trans. Albert Ryle Kezel, Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), p. 203.

Here we find the familiar setup: Mary on her knees gazing down at her newborn child. I was surprised to read that in Birgitta’s vision, she saw Mary actually give birth in the kneeling position; I had assumed that it was postpartum.

The new iconography based on Birgitta’s vision did not take long to show up in Italian art. One of the earliest representations, by Niccolo di Tommaso (d. 1376), depicts Birgitta herself (in the lower right corner) in the act of having her vision.

The Nativity with St Birgitta of Sweden, by Niccolo di Tommaso,. Now in the Pinacoteca in the Vatican.

Another early example, by Lorenzo Monaco, dates to 1406-1410. In this representation we also see the baby Jesus glowing with “great and ineffable light.”

Nativity by Lorenzo Monaco, 1406-1410. Now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

By the 15th century, the iconography of the kneeling Madonna had become standard. But someone ought to produce a set of Nativity figurines featuring a reclining Madonna—I think there would be a market for it.

Renaissance Gettysburg

One gorgeous summer afternoon a few years ago, while in Gettysburg, PA for a chamber music camp, I used our afternoon break from playing string quartets to visit the Gettysburg National Military Park and take some photos. I stopped the car at the most prominent monument I could see, which turned out to be the Pennsylvania Monument.

As I was walking around it looking for good photographic angles, I noticed how the summer sky was framed by the monument’s arch. “That’s beautiful,” I thought. “It looks just like a painting.” Then I realized, “Hold on—it looks like THE painting.” A quick search on my phone confirmed my suspicion. The Pennsylvania Monument is indeed very similar to the architectural setting of Raphael’s 1509 fresco The School of Athens, right down to the sky framed by the arch. (The other tourists visiting the Battlefield that day probably wondered why I was jumping up and down in excitement).

So, was The School of Athens the inspiration for the design of the Pennsylvania Monument? The monument was commissioned in 1907 by the Pennsylvania state legislature; architect W. Liance Cottrell was awarded the job. (Sculptor Samuel Murray, who studied with Thomas Eakins, got the sculpture commission.) The monument was still incomplete when dedicated in 1910; more money was appropriated and the finished memorial was rededicated on July 1, 1913, as part of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg.

I have so far been unable to find any evidence that Cottrell had Raphael’s fresco specifically in mind when he designed the memorial to Pennsylvanians who fought at Gettysburg. Cottrell was trained in the Beaux-Arts school of architecture, which made extensive use of classical style. Raphael and Cottrell may simply have chosen the same classical elements for their creations. But I like to imagine that Cottrell tried to bring Raphael’s imaginary building to life on the field of Gettysburg.

Teaching with Produce, Episode 1

I use a lot of images in my classes, especially art and architecture from the time periods we’re studying. It can be challenging, when studying architecture, to visualize a 3-dimensional structure when all you’re looking at is a 2-dimensional photograph. One way of meeting this challenge is by learning to read different kinds of 2-dimensional representations, like ground plans and elevations. Another way is to use 3-dimensional models. And sometimes you can make your model out of produce.

When I teach Renaissance art in a core course on modern Europe, I choose three examples, one each of painting, sculpture, and architecture—all from Florence, all from about 1430, and all one of the first of their kind. So we take a look at Donatello’s David, the first free-standing bronze nude since antiquity;Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, one of the first uses of vanishing point perspective; and Brunelleschi’s Pazzi chapel, an early example of a domed building modeled on the Pantheon.

Unlike the Pantheon, however, where the dome sits atop a round drum, Brunelleschi’s dome sits on a square base. The transition is achieved by means of pendentives, the curvy triangles on either side of the semicircles. This is extremely hard to visualize from a photo alone—so I bring out the grapefruit. I owe this demo to my college art history professor at Santa Clara University, Dr. Brigid Barton (one of my pedagogical role models).

Take one grapefruit, the largest and roundest you can find, and slice it in half. You now have two hemispherical domes; set one aside. Then, with the cut side down, make four vertical cuts in the shape of a square. And voila! You now have a square base transitioning to a round dome, by means of pendentives. Thanks, Dr. Barton!