Students will understand how widespread the Catholic Church was during the fifteenth century, its role as a primary educational institution and its relatively universal use of aesthetics to promote its teachings.
Signs and Symbols: Nativity Triptych
Time Alloted1 - 2 Class Periods
State Content Standards
History/Social Science: 7.6.8 – Understand the importance of the Catholic Church as a political, intellectual, and aesthetic institution.
Visual Arts: 1.0, 2.0, 3.0, 5.0
Vocabulary: nativity, annunciation, triptych.
Nativity Triptych at crockerartmuseum.org, different Nativity and Annunciation scenes, large map of Europe, photocopies of a map of Europe for each group.
1. Ask students, “What do you see?” When students identify Jesus and Mary, state, “Despite the fact that this painting is over 500 years old, we can still identify the main characters and events. This triptych, or panel in three parts, shows three events from the life of Jesus, the Annunciation, when Angel Gabriel told Mary that she was expecting a child, the Nativity, when Jesus was born, and the Bris, the Jewish ritual that takes place eight days following the birth. During the 15thcentury, people could easily identify these scenes from Christ’s life. Many people couldn’t read, so they learned about Catholicism through pictures and symbols. These symbols were the same throughout Europe and they were very easily understood, regardless of socio-economic status.”
2. Ask, “What symbols do you see?”
As students identify symbols, tell them their significance. Use About The Nativity Triptych as a reference. You may want to make a list of symbols and their meaning if there is not ample time for students to do the research. If you can project Digital Crocker, use the zoom feature to look closely for different symbols.
3. Why do you think people spent most of their money on religious art?
“Almost all art that was made at this time in Catholic Europe was religious. The Catholic Church was so powerful and important, that religion was the main source of one’s education. Only the very wealthy could afford to hire private tutors to teach them about math and literature. People used religious art such as this triptych for altars in their home or chapel. It was thought that religious art would help with prayer and insure one’s salvation.”
4. Divide the class into groups of 4.
5. Provide each group with a map of Europe, access to the Crocker’s Nativity Triptych, and a reproduction of another Annunciation or Nativity scene from 15th century Europe (or have them find their own example). See recommendations below.
6. Have students compare the different symbols in the Nativity Triptych and their other example and record what similarities they observe.
7. Have each group find the origin of both artworks on a map of Europe and color in each respective country.
8. Have each group define the meaning behind each of the symbols that they found.
8. Each group will present their comparisons to the class. They will show the location of both paintings on a large map of Europe, and share what similarities they found in both artworks and the meaning behind the symbols that they identified.
9. By the end of the discussion, students will understand the role of the Catholic Church as a primary educational institution and its relatively universal use of aesthetics to promote its teachings.
Other suggested images:
The Angel and the Annunciation, 1333
Tempera on panel
Jan Van Eyck
The Annunciation, c. 1435
Oil, transferred from wood to canvas
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Piero della Francesca
The Annunciation, c. 1455
San Francesco, Arezzo
The Annunciation, ca. 1485
Tempera on wood
The Nativity, c. 1445
National Gallery of Art, Washington
Master of Salzburg
The Nativity, c. 1400
Tempera on walnut
Galerie mittelalterlicher österreichischer Kunst, Vienna
Piero della Francesca
Nativity, c. 1470
Oil on Panel
National Gallery, London
Students may make their own autobiographical triptych. Each part will tell about an important time in their life. Encourage students to use symbols that have a special meaning or significance.
Information About the Nativity Triptych
The artist is unknown, although scholars have speculated that the artist might have studied the work of a well-known 15th century Netherlandish artist, Petrus Christus. When the altarpiece is completely open, the three panels tell three religious stories, from left to right: the Annunciation, the Adoration, and the Circumcision. The left wing tells the story of the Annunciation from the New Testament, when the angel of God came down to announce to Mary that she would be the mother of Christ. The Virgin Mary sits on a wooden chest in a bedroom, which is furnished just like a 15th century Netherlandish bedchamber with a carefully-made bed and the unused bed clothes tied in a knot and suspended from the bed's canopy. The angel Gabriel, dressed in white and wearing a brocade cloak, approaches Mary from behind. The scepter Gabriel holds is his attribute or identifying symbol. Gabriel points with his free hand toward heaven. Mary reads the prophecy of Isaiah (7:14) from the Old Testament: “A young woman is with child, and she will bear a son.” Her left hand touches her chest in a gesture of surprise at Gabriel's entry. Around Mary's head are radiating golden lines, representing a halo, the mark of a holy person. Above Mary's head is a dove (symbol of the Holy Spirit) surrounded by a halo as well; the appearance of the Holy Spirit symbolizes the moment of Christ's Incarnation . The light coming through the window behind Gabriel symbolizes the illuminating grace of God. In front of Mary is a vase with a lily, the symbol for Mary's chastity and purity.
The Adoration is shown in the central panel. Mary and Joseph are shown kneeling before the Christ Child who is seated against a pillow. Halos surround the heads of Mary and the Christ Child. Two small angels with beautiful, multi-colored wings are also present, kneeling between Mary and Joseph. They are shorter than Mary and Joseph and wear costly and beautiful garments, signifying that they are not of the same world as Mary and Joseph. Joseph's staff, his identifying symbol, has been laid on a stone at front. The scene takes place in a ruined stone building; stones from the wall have fallen out and many of the rafters are missing. The ruined stone building is a symbol of the pagan world, the old order, which will be replaced by the New Order or Christianity. Through the gaps in the ruined building, one sees finished buildings, possibly ones that existed in the artist's town. At the front of the painting is a border of flowers. Dandelions, which can be identified among the flowers, are symbols for Christ's passion due to their bitter taste. Beneath the border is an entrance to a hole or tunnel, a symbol of limbo, from which Christ will lead the saints.
Behind Joseph in the central panel are an ox and a donkey. The ox turns toward the Nativity scene, symbolizing his acceptance of the New Order of Christ. The donkey, on the other hand, eats from a trough and ignores the Holy Family; the donkey is a symbol of the old order. Behind Mary's head is a distant landscape. An angel in the sky above announces Christ's birth to shepherds on a hill. At the back of the landscape a horse and rider can be seen on a path, which leads to a castle. Above the ox, a group of three shepherds walk towards the ruined building, and on the left behind Mary, a pair of shepherds have already arrived to see the Holy Family. The two groups of shepherds lead the eyes of the viewer toward the central scene of Mary, Joseph and the angels adoring the Christ Child.
The right wing shows the Circumcision, when the Christ Child was eight days old. At this time he was also given the name of Jesus, as told in the New Testament (Luke 2:21). Mary holds the Christ Child, and Joseph stands beside her in his red robe. The operation was required by the religious law of the day, and the little white dog in front symbolizes faithfulness to the religious law. The religious figure, who will perform the operation, holds a knife in his hand and is dressed in a beautiful brocaded hat and robe bordered by pearls. The heads of Mary and Joseph are covered as a sign of reverence and respect for the religious law.
About the 15th and 16th Century Netherlandish Painting
At the end of the Middle Ages in 15th century Europe (northern France , the Netherlands – present-day Holland and Belgium- and Italy ) there was a rapid development of illusionistic or naturalistic painting. This new style of painting showed, to an unprecedented degree, a close correspondence between what could be seen with the eyes and what was painted. In the Netherlands this development was seen especially in wooden panels, intended for churches, guildhalls and private homes. Many of these panel paintings were devotional, taking their subject matter from the ever important religious world. Three-paneled, religious paintings, called triptychs, were hinged together so that the two side panels could cover the central panel. Placed in chapels or homes, these triptychs served to assist in personal contemplation and prayer.
At the same time that 15th -and 16th - century Netherlandish art affirmed the Christian beliefs of the artist and the patron , Netherlandish artists clothed religious content in the appearance of the visible, material, everyday world. The key to the combination of the religious and the everyday was the symbol or the tangible sign of the invisible. The artist's challenge became to disguise the religious symbols within the look of real things. For example, an everyday lily, when in the presence of the Virgin Mary, was a symbol of Mary's chastity and purity. The idea behind this use of everyday objects was that 15th century Netherlandish believed that all reality was permeated with religious meaning. As one looks at their religious paintings, one gradually penetrates beyond the objects to the submerged layers of meaning.
Netherlandish artists were also well known for their use of oil glazes and for the jewel-like color of minutely-detailed scenes. Their skill is especially displayed in the differentiation of textures, from brocades to stone and wood, animal fur and human hair. Artists often depicted the painted space, as if it took place on a stage, like medieval plays. This depiction of space grew out of the medieval illuminated manuscript tradition. This style of painting continued into the 16th century.
Albert E. Elsen, Purposes of Art, Third Edition. New York, NY: Holt, Rinehard and Winston, Inc.,
Richard V. West, editor. Crocker Art Museum: Handbook of Paintings . Sacramento, CA : Crocker Art Museum, 1979.