Four of the most beautiful depictions ever created of the Madonna and Child

With Christmas almost upon us, Caroline Campbell of the National Gallery chooses her favourite depictions of the Madonna and Child and is moved by the evocations of tenderness in each painting.

It’s hard not to be moved by the tale of the first Christmas. A pregnant woman, married to a far older man, gives birth to her child far from home, in a manger in a stable ‘because there was no room in the inn’. In a further twist, the woman tells her husband that she is carrying God’s son, but, rather than divorcing her or fearing for her sanity, he loves her and the infant as his own.

The story gets stranger and stranger. After receiving visits from shepherds, angels and some travelling kings, they escape into exile and thwart the murderous designs of King Herod. Way against the odds, goodness and love have conquered all.

Because the story of Mary, Jesus and Joseph talks to us all, it has never failed to provide inspiration for painters. They’ve interpreted its basic elements in an endless variety of ways, drawing on their own experience and observations. They’ve found the Christmas story’s unique blend of wordly poverty and spiritual riches to be challenging and inspirational.

How do you do honour to Mary, who, for many Christians, is the Queen of Heaven, and yet stay true to the facts of Christ’s birth among the hay? Artists, and their patrons, have wrestled with the problem of how you depict a figure of such importance in a stable.

The Italian painter Guido Reni, one of the European superstars of the early 17th century, manages to walk this metaphorical tightrope in The Adoration of the Shepherds. He doesn’t deny the poverty of the shepherds, who bring their very modest possessions – their bundles on their shoulders and their sheep – to worship the Christ Child on his bed of straw.

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In this picture, painted for the Prince of Lichtenstein in about 1640, the spiritual power of the Holy Family is conveyed through bright colour and powerful directional light. The shepherds, who wear drab clothes, are literally cast into the shadows by the bright blues, pinks and oranges worn by Mary and Joseph.

The Adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni (1640). Picture: The National Gallery, London

The Adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni (1640). Picture: The National Gallery, London

However, this is nothing compared to the light that shines from the naked body of Christ. Following a tradition established by the 14th-century saint Bridget of Sweden that the newborn babe was a light source infinitely more powerful than the sun, light, colour and life project from the child’s body – even into the dark sky, where they illuminate the angels who have come down from Heaven to proclaim Christ’s birth.

A different approach is taken by the Flemish Renaissance painter Jan Gossaert, who spent much of his life working for the Habsburg and Burgundian Courts in present-day Belgium, renowned for their ostentatious wealth.

At first glance, The Adoration of the Kings seems little more than a celebration of the worldly riches enjoyed by Gossaert’s clientele, including the nobleman Daniel van Boechout, Lord of Boerlare, who commissioned this work for his burial place in the Abbey of St Adrian’s, near Brussels.

The Virgin, dressed in deep blue, her hair beautifully brushed (she must have had a hairdresser), sits with the infant Christ on her lap. He holds out a golden coin as a gift to the eldest King, Caspar, who kneels at his feet, offering the Magi’s precious and symbolic gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Kings wear clothing that – like that of Mary – is dazzlingly expensive: they glitter with jewels, furs, silks and velvets.

The Adoration of the Kings by the Flemish Renaissance painter Jan Gossaert. Picture: The National Gallery, London

The Adoration of the Kings by the Flemish Renaissance painter Jan Gossaert. Picture: The National Gallery, London

For all this show, Gossaert remains true to the story. The Virgin and Child may be a King and Queen, but the baby is stark naked and they are seated not in a well-appointed palace, but in a drafty ruin that animals wander in and out of, on a stone pavement that has seen better days. Weeds grow out of the cracks and two skinny dogs stand in the foreground (one of them even gnaws on a bone).

Gossaert’s magnificent picture, painted for a wealthy aristocrat who hoped it would ease his passage into Paradise, makes us remember that Christ, the King of Kings, really was a diamond in the rough.

I admire the skill of both Gossaert and Reni in dignifying the circumstances of Christ’s birth, yet the paintings I’m most drawn to are those that show Mary and her boy child in simple, unaffecting circumstances. One is a modest painting of the Nativity, by a follower of the Florentine painter Filippo Lippi, that depicts the aftermath of Jesus’s birth and conveys some of the brutality of rural poverty.

Joseph’s small bundle on a stick – like a beggar – shows his minimal material possessions. Mary huddles in a cloak as she prays over her newborn son (the sole concession to her queenly status is that this is painted in ultramarine, a pigment made from lapis lazuli). The stable is a hovel, only partly covered by a thatched roof that is woefully inadequate in offering any protection from the elements.

The Nativity by Florentine artist Filippo Lippi (1457). Picture: The National Gallery, London

The Nativity by Florentine artist Filippo Lippi (1457). Picture: The National Gallery, London

A donkey and cow stand near the Holy Family, their bodies giving out a small amount of warmth. This is clearly totally inadequate, as, at the far left, a woman tries, with great difficulty, to light a fire. There’s a very true sense here of the bleak cold of European winters – even in Tuscany.

My absolute favourite, however, is a small, modest painting of the Virgin and Child, by the great Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna, which, for this Christmas only, can be seen in London (it usually resides in Berlin).

Mantegna was renowned for his ability to make the unbelievable – such as the worlds of Ancient Rome or the Holy Land – seem real. His inventions are dazzling, sometimes overwhelming. This picture, however, is very different in feel. It’s not showy and it’s very personal.

The Virgin and Child, by Andrea Mantegna. (1431 - 1506). Picture: bpk / Gemäldegalerie, SMB / Jörg P. Anders

The Virgin and Child, by Andrea Mantegna. (1431 – 1506). Picture: bpk / Gemäldegalerie, SMB / Jörg P. Anders

It was painted at a time when Mantegna and his wife, Nicolosia Bellini, were the parents of small children. It’s highly unlikely that Mantegna – living in an age when men and women’s roles were very circumscribed – would have sat up all night nursing small children; however, his wife certainly will have done and this picture makes me think that he must at least have watched her do this.

Mantegna’s Virgin circles her baby with her hands – one clasps the side of his head as the other holds him tight to her chest. She inclines her chin, so that it just touches the baby’s hair. Her gesture speaks of tenderness, of love, but it also tells of her desire not to wake the sleeping child.

As a mother of now – mercifully – somewhat older children, this picture takes me back to those sleepless nights that all parents will remember. I love Mantegna’s painting because it connects me and my experience back to the mother and her baby at the heart of the Christmas story. We all have pictures that do this for us, in a very personal way. Wherever we live, whatever our circumstances, whatever our faith, great art speaks to the things that make us all human.

Caroline Campbell is Director of Collections and Research at the National Gallery. The work by Andrea Mantegna is on view in the exhibition ‘Mantegna and Bellini’ at the National Gallery, until January 27. The other paintings can all be seen at the National Gallery, London WC2, or online at The Gallery is open from 10am to 6pm daily (10am to 9pm on Fridays), excepting December 24, 25 and January 1.