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