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Ricardo Fernández Gracia, Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art.

Heritage and identity (22). Christmas in 16th century painting

Fri, 20 Dec 2019 11:06:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

Navarra preserves a good set of Renaissance panels from the 16th century in its altarpieces, many of them depicting the main themes of the infancy of Christ. Among those paintings, those of the Nativity, the Adoration of the shepherds and the Epiphany stand out. Their analysis and contemplation, on these dates, constitutes a good opportunity to taste their compositions from the aesthetic and iconographic point of view, from the form and the background.

Remarkable authors captured the topic of the Nativity with splendid quality. They are paintings integrated in outstanding Renaissance altarpieces. All these representations served successive generations as the only visual catechesis of the Gospel story of the coming of Christ into the world. Through them, in a society lacking in culture and images, so different from ours, their observation must have left a deep impression on those who contemplated them and their didactic-devotional purpose was fully achieved and justified. Both the sacred characters, as well as the rustic ones and the "zagales", would serve to imitate in the theatrical representations, commissioned by the regiments, that were made in the Christmas period in diverse towns like Fitero or Cascante, well documented in the XVI century. In the latter town, the bishop of Tarazona, don Pedro Cerbuna, in 1587, ordered that in the Corpus Christi and the Christmas matins (Mass of the rooster), "no representations of profane things are made, but sanctas".

"And Mary brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke, II, 7). This text was, together with another of St. Matthew, the starting point of a graphic universe that, since the preaching of the Gospel, continuously fascinated promoters and artists, of greater or lesser category, to capture the Christmas cycle. However, the source most chosen by artists for the creation of their works were the stories of the apocryphal Gospels, not authorized by the church, but more tolerated in the plastic arts. Among the latter texts, we will mention the Protoevangelium of James, the Pseudo-Matthew, the Gospel of the Nativity of Mary and the History of the Infancy of Jesus. The narration of the fact of St. Bridget also weighed on some aspects, such as the kneeling position of the Virgin, with her head bowed and her hands together in an attitude of prayer.

The first element in the representation of the birth of Christ is the stable and the cave with the animals and the second, without a doubt, the angels and shepherds. Following the text of the Holy Scriptures, which says: "So they came in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger", Christian iconography created a whole world of shepherds, men and women, dressed in a simple, sometimes poor, manner. Some carry staffs - as a symbol of their official document- and others carry bags with their provisions in their mouths. With an expression of astonishment, they approach the designated place and, all around them, the flocks that they look after and accompany can be seen. As is logical, all this scenic apparatus is accompanied by an angel or angelic choir with a phylactery with the words "Gloria in excelsis Deo". Some elements that also appear in the tables have their iconographic reading. The architectural ruins evoke the Old Testament, as opposed to the Word made flesh and the arrival of the New. The column fragment may allude to the support on which the Virgin leaned at the moment of giving birth, according to a passage from the Meditations of Pseudo Bonaventure, a 14th century Italian Franciscan.

The ashlar that, on some occasions, serves as a seat for the Child Jesus, should be associated with the cornerstone of Isaiah's prophecy (28:16). It is also assimilated to Christ in St. Peter (Acts, 4:10-11) and in St. Paul (Epistle to the Faithful of Ephesus, 2:20-21). Moreover, it can be related to the way in which sacrifices are placed on the altar, thus acquiring a sacramental character.

The topic of the Adoration of the Shepherds had a very broad evolutionary development in Spanish painting from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Professor Julián Gallego made a series of considerations on this subject, especially for the seventeenth century. For the aforementioned researcher the rise of shepherds in altarpieces, in the lyrics of Christmas carols and in literature, in general, is surprising. If the topic of the advertisement to the shepherds is one of the oldest in Christian iconography, the same cannot be said of their presence in the portal, where they only appear centuries later. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they became talking characters in the scene. Those rustic people with their pellicles, their saddlebags, their baskets, their hushed, their sandals, their gifts -sometimes symbolic-, their enthusiastic looks, their deep, naïve and sincere devotion are especially nice.

The versions of the Early Renaissance masters 

Different artistic trends followed one another in the first half of the 16th century, almost all depending on prints by Dürer and other Nordic masters. The one corresponding to the Ororbia altarpiece (c.1523-1530), sample to its anonymous master as a great colorist, in a very interesting chronology in the assimilation of the Renaissance in the Pamplona basin.

The panel of the main altarpiece of Santa María de Olite belongs to Pedro de Aponte, a painter with production between 1509 and 1530, in Grañén, Ágreda, Cintruénigo and Olite. His style is typical of Nordic expressivism, translated into restless and nervous figures, inspired by engravings by Dürer, Cranach, Schöngauer and Van Merlen, with an intense palette based on blues, greens, crimsons and reds, and characteristic types with prominent foreheads, hooked noses and net modeling.

The two examples by Juan de Bustamante are located in the altarpieces of Huarte-Pamplona and Cizur Mayor. In the first locality, position was made in 1535 and the Nativity panel has been related to a print by Nicoletto de Módena. The main altarpiece in Cizur Mayor was made in 1538. In both cases the style of the master is evident, very staff, with very fibrous physical types, gesticulating attitudes, unbowed, agitated hair and beards, elongated canon, expressivism, acid colors (reds, greens, yellows), use of linear perspective and engravings of Raimondi and other masters. 

The Burlada altarpiece, now in the Museum of Navarre, sample a Nativity panel, the work of Juan del Bosque, King of Arms, for which he received payment between 1540 and 1546. In all the compositions sample the combination of Italian and Nordic influences, using Dürer's engravings.

The triumph of Italian art through Raphaelesque models 

The main altarpiece of Fustiñana was made in its architecture by Pierres del Fuego from 1561. His paintings were contracted with Rafael Juan de Monzón and micer Pietro Morone. To the latter master belongs the panel of the Adoration of the Shepherds, which is located in the first body of the altarpiece and must have been made around 1569. Morone was Italian, born in Siena, he arrived in Aragon in 1548 from Barcelona and in the Aragonese capital he received as an apprentice the Navarrese Antón Claver. Among his most important works are the main altarpieces of the parishes of La Magdalena and San Miguel in Turiason. The last news we have of the painter date from the seventies. 

Compositionally, the Fustiñana panel reflects the influence of Raphael, Michelangelo and their followers. In the foreground are arranged St. Joseph, the Virgin and Child, plus two other shepherds slightly behind. The backgrounds are resolved with classical architecture, some ruins alluding to ancient law and paganism, other groups of shepherds and an Annunciation in the background. While in some figures, as in the Virgin, the suggestion of early mannerism and a certain linearism dominate, in others, as in the Child, the inspiration is closer to Romanesque mannerism. There is no lack of naturist details in the shepherds and their offerings. St. Joseph is represented at a mature age, he is not yet treated as an active member of the Holy Family, as soon became the case in post-Tridentine painting. 

The cathedral of Pamplona preserves a pair of panels with the Nativity and the Epiphany of Italianate filiation, but by a painter Spanish, possibly from Toledo. The physical types, the delicacy and formal beauty of the angels and the Virgin, as well as the backgrounds lead us to a high-flying master, completely foreign to the ways of working of the painters of the Pamplona focus of the sixteenth century, particularly of its great protagonists, the Oscáriz who, by the way, also left the topic of Christmas in some of his works.

The panel in the Museum of the Incarnation of Corella, from the old main altarpiece of the parish of the Rosary in the same town, corresponds to the same period. It is the work of a painter, hardly known, called Pedro de la Puebla, who was established in Corella between 1570 and 1580. Its outline should be related to the models popularized by the Italian and Flemish printmaking of those times. Compositionally it is very simple, with the sacred characters and two shepherds, one on each side, the one on the right with a lighted candle. The background is formed by simple classical architecture and a very simple landscape. 

The new style in La Oliva and Fitero 

A new stylistic phase can be seen in the panels of the main altarpieces of the monasteries of La Oliva and Fitero, the work of the prestigious painter Rolan de Mois, established in Zaragoza, where he died in 1591, and one of the best of the regional and national panorama of the last decades of the 16th century. Framed in the period of reformed mannerism, sample in his production a Venetian coloring and innovative lighting experiences clearly proto-baroque. In both examples the advance towards naturalism is evident, as well as the large dimensions of the panels, which are exceptional with respect to the previous examples. 

In the case of La Oliva, the altarpiece was contracted in 1571 with Rolan Mois and Paolo Schepers, painters who had arrived in Spain with the humanist Martín de Gurrea y Aragón, Duke of Villahermosa, in 1559. At the death of Schepers in 1579, the work was unfinished and in 1582, some panels were still in the workshop of Mois in which Antonio Galcerán and Francisco Metelin intervened. According to the monk and chronicler Father Ubani, the amount of money amounted to 3,152 ducats and 7 tarjas. He himself points out the benefit that the altarpiece meant for the abbey and the main chapel of his abbey church, although he points out two defects, the first one "that no account was made of making this altarpiece with the tabernacle in its main place for the Blessed Sacrament, because of which it was necessary to make a new one expense, as it will be stated in 1613" . For the table of the Adoration of the Shepherds, the contract stipulated that it should be "well accompanied and as used, the holy Joseph, and ox, and donkey, and shepherds that adorn, and the angels with glory in excelsis, all new and very graceful". The expression "to the new" is very significant, to show the taste for the Venetian and the natural.

The main altarpiece of Fitero was contracted in June 1590, by the abbot Fray Marcos de Villalba, with Rolan Mois for 2,200 ducats, an amount that the monastery was willing to pay because of the painter's reputation. In the clause of the contract we read: "and it is a very excessive price and it is only done for the good opinion that Rolan Mois has in painting, it is a condition that all the main painting of the said altarpiece will be done by the said Mois by his own hand and for everything that is gilding and stewing he will bring very intelligent people of art and with his attendance it will be done and with very vivid and perfect colors". Villalba died at the end of the following year without seeing the altarpiece finished and the painter, a little later, without completely concluding his commitment.

The outline of the composition had an enormous fortune in other replicas by the same artist and in later canvases. The evolution towards naturalism is evident when contemplating the figures of the two shepherds that advance towards the Holy Family and in the contract, in which it is specified that "the figures are as natural".

The Child has become a symbolic light in allusion to several biblical quotations: "God is the light"(1Jo.1.5), "He was the true light"(1Jo.1.4) and " I am the light of the world" (Jo. 8, 12). In the composition there are two other light sources, one in the upper break of glory and another, fainter in the background, behind the figure of the Virgin, giving visibility to two shepherds. This chiaroscuro, typical of a nocturnal scene, is linked to the Venetian painting of the Bassano and the Escorial painting of Zuccaro and Navarrete. The figure of St. Joseph is represented young, as an active member of the Holy Family, far from the medieval tradition. A rich, warm color of Venetian ancestry, based on intense reds and earth tones, enhance this imposing panel.