I was enchanted from my first encounter with Jesus. This Jesus; an entirely hairless Jesus, silver skinned; the Jesus of this eerie Tuscan Bethlehem, its powder blue garments and bleached earth. There is no need really to rehearse it, but Mary is approached by an angel, caught while she is reading, and told she will later have a baby, an unusual baby because she is a virgin and this baby is the son of god. There he is gurgling on the ground, on a length of dazzling cobalt cloth. This is a transformative moment for mankind.The Nativity, Piero Della Francesca, 1470-5, oil on poplar, 124.4 x 122.6 cm.
I tell people my favourite room in the National Gallery is Room 60, but this isn’t quite right – I’m thinking of a previous hang, a few years ago now, in which the Piero Della Francescas were in their own antechamber, and there was only space for a few people to stand before each one. Always a little cooler there, quieter. I search online but cannot find evidence this arrangement ever existed.
Room 60 as it actually exists – up the stairs, left by the stand selling audio-guides – feels more like a thoroughfare than the enclave I recall from my first visits: people rush in and straight through on their way to other paintings. Nothing is lost to this change, in some ways the image is bettered – all these heightened moments going unnoticed, time pressing on, and no experience (regardless of its beauty, its importance) is immune.
At first it was an attachment. I memorised its location, developed theories I cultivated in private, read almost nothing in fear of damaging its allure, discovered myself thinking about blue robes and dry soil at odd moments. There were times when I fell asleep piecing together the picture’s parts – cataloguing faces, creases in fabric, distant trees. Mostly, though, it was enough to simply enjoy it – the music of the lutes, the eeriness, the stasis. But I’ve found it accompanies me, this painting.
I know very little about Piero Della Francesca, but I do know this was one of the last paintings he created. I read this on my phone as I’m running across Trafalgar Square, it’s March, and I’m soon breathing less urgently, shaking the rain from my coat, gently navigating the space between the shoulders of tourists, moving close to a canvas saturated with life. I’m looking at the friend I’ve brought here when I’m stood before The Nativity with a map of the gallery already crumpled in my hand saying yes, this is it, this is my favourite thing – which feels like a large statement, a vulnerable one too. I couldn’t tell you anything about Tuscany in 1470, nor really much about the story the painting depicts (aside from its most basic elements) or (as I said) of Francesca himself. All I have is Francesca, elderly, in a warm climate; Mary and her unusual newborn. So how to account for this identification?
I would start by describing Christ’s small hands, hardly distinguishable from the angel’s feet – all that luminous, unmarked flesh – and how he lies there, arms outstretched, a speck of vulnerability flanked by immortal beings. Then there’s the animals, shadowy figures, each of which can be looked straight through to reveal the sparse interior of the shed behind: it’s simply an accident of ageing, or – according to the details I find online – a conservation error, an overzealous clean now hundreds of years old. But it’s a productive mistake, as their semi-transparency feels meaningful, as if this were the materiality of the conditional, as though there was some doubt as to their presence in this moment: perhaps Christ arrived in this world accompanied by an ox, it implies, but how ill-fitting to the gravity of the moment! I don’t notice the donkey, braying with what resembles anguish, until the friend points it out: the uncertainty of its texture feels like a way of visualising a mood beneath the celebration we are so explicitly witness to – it suggests a provisionality to this joy, it generates an undercurrent of sorrow we know to be prescient.
Mary is fully dressed, serene, decorated with a look of unbreakable composure that is not unlike the angels, who are rejoicing with a degree of sobriety – stiff bodies extend into firmly planted feet, and nothing like happiness in any of their expressions. Only Mary’s eyes point to the enormity of what’s happened – but maybe I’m mistaking a look of reverence, of ecstasy, for the ragged look of a woman who has laboured into creating a significant new life. Joseph is the man in pink, legs crossed, looking away: I read a caption that claims he is deep in thought, but it might also be indifference – and I confess I’m prone to reading callousness into men’s bodies. Striking, too, how unimportant Joseph feels: his face worn away almost entirely, disappearing into the cloak of the shepherd; his clasped hands and averted eyes suggest he is waiting for something – another action, a different event – entirely apart from the scene, is little more than an interloper, a trespasser. Joseph is sat outside the stable, a structure that is not simply ordinary (as I’ve seen written in many descriptions) but ramshackle, damaged, in complete contradiction to the incident it served to foster. I’m pointing to the plants sprouting from the slats, the gaps where bricks have crumbled and fallen, and I’m saying how it brings to mind all those failures of circumstance in which a feeling does not quite fit its moment, its material conditions. The environment isn’t all disappointment, however: the land yields some tufts of grass, a few lonely sprigs in a muddied green and while the soil looks parched, the texture surrounding the angels looks close to fur, mossy – as if some aliveness were limning from their toes into the greenery.
I’m making a request of Francesca – asking for a little of that aliveness, attention, transformation – every time I find myself fixated upon the smooth grey skin of his angelic band. On this occasion? I slept alone in a stranger’s flat in Deptford the night before; I found beautiful white cat hair all over my clothes waiting for the train; I ran across Trafalgar Square in a lukewarm rain peculiar to March; I cannot help but feel London is lost to me, although it hasn’t been long since I moved. I meet the gaze of my most beloved angel – second left, who looks straight ahead, a steadiness I admire – and feel the distance foreclose, if only slightly.
And before – when I visited often, the years I lived in the city? I came to understand, again and again, that these angels’ composure was not my own.
Some things to note about the angels:
Periwinkle, violet, off-white tunics.
The folds in their skirts, the ruffles at the waist – all of it gives a weight to the garments and yes, the heaviness of their duties is somewhat implied in this.
The friend points out the slit defining the off-white robe, and we wonder as to its use: the break in the fabric is too neat, too perfectly oval, to be an accident, a snag.
Their hair in frizzed halos, a couple with tiny crowns; some afternoons I’ve detected the faintest pink on their cheekbones, it’s visible too in most reproductions; their heads lined up like beads on a pearl necklace.
Until recently, the friend and I had not spoken in years – hearing him speak remains a novelty, and it feels almost miraculous, stood before these angels, two of which have their eyes closed, an apt image of reprieve, each with the calm look of sleepers, dreamless.
One has their mouth open in an ohhhh, revealing a tongue in an adorable pink; the mouth outstretched in song, accompanying the lutes; often I find myself opening my mouth, echoing the angel’s pose.
The angels and their musical activity define this image as one of celebration – the word on the National Gallery label I accept we must read is adoration: homage to a holy figure, spirited devotion, worship. This has as much to do with femininity as spiritual fervour: adoration is a framing of subjectivity in terms of self-sacrifice, submission, service, duty – and all of it cheerfully, willingly performed. I often think of the discomfort of Mary’s physical position here, kneeling on the ground.
I try to imagine what other commentary I would offer as an alternative to that I hear drifting from the plastic headsets. Something like. Here is a once dazzling world that has faded – the baby’s blue pillow is the only spot holding its intensity of pigment – and all despite conditions of cultivated mildness. Precise levels of light, no flash photography, a controlled temperature, air filtration, fleets of security guards. I think of myself as someone who aspires to live within intensities, but the painting has somehow always felt like an appropriate metaphor for my own life: watching parts of myself vanish within my own cautiousness. These moments of wariness, the easy correlation of shabby paint and frayed feeling – one possible reason for returning, of feeling primed for the painting’s address. I’ve spent time amongst the men wearing ochre and brown tunics, one raising his hand as if to lead the pair of them out of the frame. They are shepherds standing alongside their cattle, similarly grainy and sombre toned, their faces blasted off – another misfortune or oversensitivity to light that’s in fact additive, articulate. I was thinking then of what’s lost in the corralling of my emotions, herding those disobedient creatures, and how I’ve felt the coordinates of myself drift apart in its pursuit. I look at the shepherds and cannot help but think about inability, incapacity and self-estrangement; of the exhausting trials I’ve put myself through.
Like Joseph, the shepherds are not of this world, nor of this scene – they look as if they are passing through, making their way into another time: I like to think of it as one better suited to their foibles, their needs.
I’ve always loved annunciation scenes: in those, Mary is glimpsed during the experience that will alter her life entirely, about to embark upon a becoming remarkable in its import, and it’s a moment I believe she has some agency within, even an element of power in its meaning-making: that’s what I see in her open book, the reading pose she is so often imagined within. But here, once the promise is fulfilled and the act completed, the tone is different: we are observing potential transformed into the concrete, of fantasy flattened into reality. The book of her youth has been set aside – and with it knowledge, authority, independence, however limited – for there are greater obligations now, more important projects than those of self-formation. It is her responsibility to tend to, care for, plunge herself entirely within this child, and there is something of this realisation in her heavy lids, her pallor so luminous it’s visible from all points in the room.
Yet, during more helpless spells in years prior, I’ve felt Mary’s calm within this state of charged mutability grant a permission to cease catastrophizing, to kneel before whatever higher power I’ve chosen to succumb to, and to will myself into a different kind of boldness.
I admit to the friend that I’ve often wondered how Western conceptions of femininity might have differed if Mary wasn’t always so sour-faced, miserable or entirely without affect. I move around the gallery watching for small variations on the Virgin’s mouth: what I want is the faintest suggestion of a smile and – therefore? – a hint of self-possession, of self-knowledge, or even (the most ridiculous hope of all, perhaps) a species of pleasure.
As I’m leaving I find myself thinking about Gwen John, who was born two years after The Nativity was acquired by The National Gallery. Like most aspiring artists of her age, Gwen came to The National Gallery to draw from the Old Masters, and I like to believe this Francesca was something she saw, maybe even admired. Religious scenes were of great interest to her: some of her most famous compositions see her stood by open windows reading, echoing Mary’s first encounter with an angel. Yet those scenes, astonishing as they are, aren’t what comes to mind. Rather, I’m thinking of a series of portraits Gwen did for the Dominican Sisters of Charity, a community of nuns local to her in the village of Meudon. The nuns wanted a portrait of their long-deceased founder, Marie Poussepin, and Gwen began working from a series of black and white reproductions, becoming fixated with the task, painting six known versions (with additional drawings) all of which she was working on simultaneously. Most versions of Marie are sombre, expressions of glumness or serenity that mirror exactly the Mary visible in every room of The National Gallery. There is one drawing, however, in which she looks directly out at the viewer, a coy smile spread across her face.
Images courtesy of The National Gallery and The British Museum:
Piero Della Francesca, The Nativity, The National Gallery.
Gwen John, A nun with hands folded, The British Museum, 1940,0723.1, AN188222001.
Rebecca Birrell was born in Liverpool in 1991. She studied English Literature at UCL, then Women’s Studies at The University of Oxford funded by the AHRC. She is currently studying for a PhD at the Edinburgh College of Art, also supported by the AHRC. Her first non-fiction book, a blend of memoir, collective biography and art criticism, will be published by Bloomsbury in 2021. She was previously Assistant Curator of Exhibitions at the Jewish Museum London, and before that occupied curatorial positions in The Department of Prints and Drawing at The British Museum and at The Charleston Trust.