His daughter, Gabriele Neven DuMont (1899–1978), Cologne;
Thence by descent to the present owners.
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Frühe italienische Kunst des 13.–15. Jahrhunderts, 1 July – 15 September 1953, p. 10, no. 2 (as Bicci di Lorenzo);
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, on loan since 1968 (inv. dep. 320; bears Gemälde-Inventar 1925 label on the reverse);
Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Myrrhe, Gold und Weihrauch, 1 December 1996 – 2 February 1997, no. 2.
H. D. Gronau, ‘Early Italian Paintings at Stuttgart’, The Burlington Magazine, no. 572, vol. 92, November 1950, p. 322 (as Bicci di Lorenzo);
G. von der Osten, ‘Berichte aus Westdeutschen Museen, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum Köln’, Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, vol. 30, 1968, pp. 387–88 (as Florentine, c. 1420);
H. Keller, ‘Berichte aus Westdeutschen Museen, Wallraf-Richartz-Museum Köln’, Wallraf-Richartz-Jahrbuch, vol. 31, 1969, p. 323 (as Bicci di Lorenzo, c. 1430–35);
B. Klesse, Katalog der italienischen, französischen und spanischen Gemälde bis 1800 im Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne 1973, pp. 24–25, reproduced fig. 12 (as Bicci di Lorenzo);
C. Heβe and M. Schlagenhaufer, Vollständiges Verzeichnis der Gemäldesammlung, Cologne 1986, p. 13, reproduced fig. 454;
R. Budde and R. Krischel, Das Wallraf-Richartz-Museum: Hundert Meisterwerke von Simone Martini bis Edvard Munch, Cologne 2001, p. 54, reproduced in colour on p. 55 (as Bicci di Lorenzo, c. 1430–35).
Born in Florence, Bicci di Lorenzo trained under his father Lorenzo di Bicci (d. 1427), eventually taking over the workshop, which became a thriving enterprise and was later handed down to his own son Neri di Bicci (1419–91). During the course of a career that spanned four decades, Bicci produced a large number of works that can accurately be recorded either from dates inscribed on the paintings themselves or from documentary evidence.
Both Longhi and Gronau in their reviews of the exhibition at Stuttgart in 1950 first recognised this Nativity as a panel by Bicci di Lorenzo. In refuting the attribution to Cenno di Francesco di Ser Cenni, Gronau described the work as a ‘characteristic and excellent’ work by Bicci.1 The date proposed by Longhi of about 1425–35 has since been narrowed by Klesse to c. 1430–35 on the basis of comparisons with dated altarpieces.2
Bicci revisited the theme of the Nativity numerous times, sometimes in predella panels – such as the now destroyed Nativity dated 1423 (formerly Kaiser-Friedrich Museum, Berlin) – and always varying the poses of his figures in subtle ways.3 The design of this Nativity is most closely comparable to the central predella panel of the triptych in Sant’Ippolito, Bibbiena (Casentino), dated 1435, one of very few of Bicci’s compositions to position the manger parallel with the stable, rather than at an oblique angle.4 An analogous Nativity is a predella panel attributed to Bicci di Lorenzo in the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Mass.5 Comparisons have also been drawn with an altarpiece by Bicci di Lorenzo in San Giovannino dei Cavalieri, Florence.6 Albeit that the latter is much larger in scale, the principal figures are very similar in pose and configuration to the ones in this panel, so too are the colours, which led Klesse to favour a dating of about 1430–35. One other depiction deserves mention, not least because it is a rare instance of this subject by this artist appearing on the market: the Nativity and the Adoration of the Shepherds, formerly in the Pratt collection, New York. The latter comes closest to this Nativity in the pose adopted for St Joseph, albeit that here Bicci paints the gesture of intertwined hands clasping the knee in a way that is altogether more vivid and true to life.7
Other elements of this panel that best display Bicci’s finesse include his characteristic use of precisely rendered backgrounds in combination with bright colours; here Bicci’s tonal use of pigment describes not only rock formations in varying shades of earth colours, but also the darkest depths of the cave at the centre of the composition. By contrast the vivid colours of the drapery offer a rich spectrum of yellows, reds and greens. The interplay between the praying Madonna, the swaddled Jesus (toes bare) and pensive Joseph are masterfully orchestrated; their clarity surpasses many of the examples cited above. The infant Jesus, the Madonna, Joseph, and two shepherds are all contained within the framework of the stable. Its thatched roof conveys a clear sense of structure merely by the glimpse offered of its underside. There are many lively details on this panel, not least the hem of the Madonna's mantle, which echoes the contours of the rock, as if the folds of fabric were about to disappear down a crevice.
The presence of a cave as the locus of the Nativity derives from an apochryphal source, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, probably written in the seventh century, which describes the nativity as taking place there. According to this source Mary left the cave on the third day and brought the infant Jesus to a stable, where the ox and the ass adored him. In the painting, the stable, made of roughly hewn trunks that support a canopy, stands at the mouth of the cave. The cave may also represent an evocation of Christ’s place of burial and rebirth.
The edges of this panel are trimmed on all four sides, which make it difficult to determine its original location. Its dimensions make it improbable that it was once part of a predella. Bicci, in the majority of his interpretations of the Nativity, favoured a horizontal format. The composition of this panel is therefore highly unusual in concentrating the narrative within a markedly vertical format. The absence of hosts of angels in this Nativity poses the question of how much more of the gold ground beyond the edges of the panel might once have existed.
1. Gronau 1950, p. 322 and Longhi 1950, p. 47.
2. Klesse 1973, pp. 24–25.
3. R. Fremantle, Florentine Gothic Painters, From Giotto to Masaccio, A Guide to Painting in and near Florence 1300 to 1450, London 1975, p. 473, fig. 980; 41 x 40 cm., shaped with foliated top.
4. Fremantle 1975, p. 479, fig. 996; 280 x 250 (whole including the spires); predella approx. H. 40 cm.
5. Inv. 1920–19. Reproduced in R. Van Marle, The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting, vol. IX, New York, 1970, p. 26, fig. 16.
6. Fremantle 1975, p. 482, fig. 1003; 190 x 190 cm.
7. Tempera on panel, gold ground, 25.5 x 62 cm.; sold London, Sotheby’s, 5 May 1995, lot 49, for £120,000.
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