Culture24 explores digital Nativity treasures in online museum and gallery collections

By Culture24 Staff | 02 December 2009
an oil painting showing a mother wrapping a baby whilst angels look on

A detail from The Nativity, by Arthur Hughes. Courtesy Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

If the Christmas chaos and commerciality are getting on top of you, take some time out to explore some of the Nativity treasures held in museum and gallery collections that are easily accessible online.

Culture24 has selected some outstanding Nativity pieces from online collections at home and abroad that you can zoom in and view in detail.

The National Gallery has a series of zoomable pictures depicting the traditional Nativity scene including pieces by Gerteen, Raphael, Sandro Botticelli, Titian and Francesco Francia.

Gerteen’s beautiful depiction of The Nativity at Night shows light seemingly bursting from the baby Jesus in the manger, illuminating the Virgin Mary and the angels who are watching over him.

If you have younger readers who would like to get involved and take a look at what the National Gallery has to offer take a look at Culture24’s Show Me site for kids, which explores the Gallery's digital Nativity art in detail.

The Pre-Raphaelite resource at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has two strikingly different Nativity pieces in its online collection, The Nativity Composition Sketch, by Edward Burne-Jones and The Nativity by Arthur Hughes.

The sketch, by Burne-Jones is thought to be the plan for the central panel of the Nativity triptych at Lady Margaret Hall Oxford.

The rough sketch shows the Virgin lying on a couch inside the stable with the Christ Child beside her in the manger and the zoom facility allows you to observe the mass of pencil strokes that make up the piece in great detail.

a marble carving showing three religous scenes

The Annunciation, Nativity and Adoration of the Magi. Courtesy British Museum

In comparison to the Burne-Jones piece, Hughes uses a vivid palette of purples and pinks to create the cramped scene in which the birth of Christ took place. The scene of mother wrapping her child in swaddling robes is watched over by angels whose wings appear to burst out of the picture.

Moving away from painting and stepping further back in time, The British Museum has an ivory carving dating back to the Carolingian Renaissance around 800 AD and is believed to be from Aachen in Germany.

The Annunciation, Nativity and Adoration of the Magi is one of a group of carvings that are believed to have originated in Aachen, which was the seat of the Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor 800-814.

The panel was either half of a diptych or the outer wing of a five-part hinged carving that may have formed the cover for an illuminated gospel. Traces of blue and red paint and gilding on the panel are not original, but they do remind us that ivory, like marble sculpture in the ancient world, was traditionally painted in vivid polychromy.

an oil painting shoiwng the nativity scene in a tumbledown barn

(Above) The Nativity, William Bell Scott. Courtesy National Galleries of Scotland

William Bell Scott’s nativity scene in The National Galleries of Scotland transports the birth of Christ to a tumbledown stable near Penkill Castle in Scotland. Angels watch from the rafters of the barn as the shepherds pay their respects and a procession of Magi approaches the scene.

By searching the National Gallery of Scotland’s online database, it's possible to unearth a variety of representations of the nativity scene.

Overseas collections exploring the representation of the Nativity include The Museum of New Zealand, which holds a piece by controversial carver Eric Gill showing Jesus being breast fed by Mary whilst Joseph and a donkey look on.

Gill’s strong lines and unusual representation can be looked at in further detail using the zoom facility.

For more information on any of the collections follow the details below.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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