LATE GOTIC RELIEF “Nativity of Christ”

"Birth of Christ"
Rhineland/Southern Netherlands
Around 1500

Wood relief carved & original,
closed polychromy
43 x 42 cm, with frame 51 x 50 cm

This square relief depicting the Nativity shows an aspect of Christ’s salvation story with many carefully added details. This image theme was already depicted on ancient and early Christian sarcophagi and also enjoyed great popularity in the Middle Ages.

Mary, wrapped in a wide cloak with expansive, voluminous folds, sits with her hands clasped in front of her chest in front of the naked Child Jesus, who is laid on a cloth. The mother is visually exaggerated by the stable architecture; in it rest the ox and the donkey, whereby the ox just stretches its head up to the hay trough and seems to eat; a playful moment of the otherwise devoutly solemn atmosphere. Around the just born child are gathered three angels with large golden wings. Two of them look down on the Savior with clasped hands, while the third seems to be pulling on the cloth to possibly make the child’s bed more comfortable. Around them are depicted the city walls with an open door like a “hortus conclusus”, that is, a closed garden. A bearded male figure with tools attached to his belt bends over the battlements of the wall; this is probably Joseph the carpenter, which completes the Holy Family. In the background is a city veduta with fortification walls, in front of which shepherds are driving their sheep through a hilly and rocky landscape. The angel of the Lord approaches from the upper right, announcing the good news of the birth of Christ. One shepherd looks up at him, spellbound, while another seems to flee.

The relief panel probably comes from the side wing of an altar retable, where it was included in the biblical cycle. The lush and complex folds suggest a date of origin around 1500. The surrounding angels are reminiscent of Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut from the Life of Mary with the same subject, which was created around 1503. A similar relief can also be found in the north aisle of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Worms from 1515.