Great Painting of the Day: Birth of the Virgin by Giotto

Today is the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Relatively speaking, this feast is not a humongous deal in the liturgical life of the Church, but who doesn’t like birthdays?!

art-and-liturgy-st-bernadette-ccc-videoIn 1854 (after the whole thing with St. Bernadette) Pope Pius IX announced the doctrine that Mary, the mother of Christ, was immaculately conceived. This means that she was free from the stain of original sin from the time of her conception, unlike the rest of us. This was a great and wondrous miracle, so it is a huge celebration on December 8 every year. Naturally, we celebrate Mary’s birth nine months later – September 8!

Today’s GPOD is a fresco entitled Birth of the Virgin by my favorite painter, Giotto di Bondone. It is part of a series about the life of Mary, which lined the walls of a church in Florence called the Scrovegni Chapel.

Birth of the Virgin by Giotto di Bondone, c. 1300, fresco.
Birth of the Virgin by Giotto di Bondone, c. 1300, fresco.

Coincidentally, Giotto will be the main subject of the next AHFNP, which will cover the Early Renaissance.

He was the first artist in the western world to paint characters who really seemed to take up space. His work combines the otherworldly stillness of Eastern icons with a solidity and realism that had not ever been achieved before. Plus, his paintings look like a scene from Shrek, which is fun.

In this painting, the newborn Mary is shown twice! In the foreground, the maiden is feeding the baby. It looks like the one on the right has just finished cleaning her up. I think the goal was to express Mary’s humanity – although she was sinless, she also got hungry, needed baths, etc.

In the background, Mary (swaddled up in a little cocoon) is handed over to her mother, Saint Anne, who sits in bed. It was common during the Renaissance to show characters doing a series of things in the same scene.

Note that in the pediment of the house (the triangular part on top), Christ is depicted between two angels. Historically, Christ would not have been born yet, so it is a subtle reminder from the artist that “In the beginning, there was the Word.”