11 December 2013

Art for Advent (11): ‘Nativity with Saint Francis
and Saint Lawrence’ by Caravaggio

‘Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence’ by Caravaggio

Patrick Comerford

My choice of a painting for Advent this morning [11 December] is ‘Nativity with Saint Francis and Saint Lawrence’ by Caravaggio.

Also known as The Adoration, this oil on canvas painting, measuring 268 x 197 cm, was stolen in October 1969 from the Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo, where it had been displayed for over three and a half centuries since it was painted in 1609 until it was stolen in 1969.

This morning’s painting was painted by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio in 1609 while he was in self-imposed exile from Rome after killing a man in a duel, and his escape from prison in Malta. It is Caravaggio’s last large-scale complex painting.

Critics say the composition of this work is less successful than in many other paintings by Caravaggio. The atmosphere, which is contained and pensive, shows that at this stage in his career, Caravaggio associated the Advent of Christ not with the joy of the Redemption but with a future that is at best uncertain.

The side walls of the stable in Bethlehem are disappearing into brownish darkness. There, the shepherds and saints are gathered to worship the newborn Christ Child, with Saint Lawrence on the left and Saint Francis looking for all like a shepherd.

Saint Lawrence is the patron of the church for which the painting was commissioned, while Saint Francis is there because the church belongs to the Franciscans.

The centre of the picture is shared between the figures who have come to worship the Christ Child. Among them, Saint Joseph seems almost lost.

The Christ Child lies on a bed of straw with some white drapery. The Virgin Mary seems to be exhausted and is crouching on the ground behind him, wearing an unusually cut dress that is falling from her right shoulder.

She is clutching her stomach and gazing in shock at the infant lying at her feet while an angel hovers above, holding in his left hand a banner proclaiming Gloria in Eccelsis Deo (‘Glory to God in the Highest’), while his right hand is pointing upwards, proclaiming the Christ Child is really the Son of God.

The ox and half-hidden ass behind Saint Lawrence are also looking at the child.

Caravaggio subverts this scene by placing a youthful shepherd in the foreground. With his back to us as the viewers, his shoe is touching the new-born Christ, while he is twisting to face the aged Saint Joseph with obvious disbelief.

This painting was stolen on 18 October 1969 from the Oratory of San Lorenzo, where it hung over the altar. Because of its large size, it was taken from its frame by the thieves before being removed from the church. The thieves also stole other works of art in the church, along with choir stalls carved in gilded wood and benches inlaid with precious woods and mother of pearl.

The whereabouts of the painting are unknown, despite many rumours. It is one of the most famous unrecovered stolen works of art, and is listed by the FBI as one of its top ten art crimes. It has an estimated value of $20 million, although the likely auction value is far, far greater.

Tomorrow:The Canal Grande and Santa Maria della Salute,’ by Canaletto.

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