Every now and then, one reads something that is just too off the mark to overlook.

I happened to notice, today, an article talking about the Nativity painted by Giotto (c. 1266-1337):

It is a pleasant scene, typical of the early Italian mixture of old elements from the Greek tradition softened by the Italian sensibility.  It shows the familiar elements:  a star above, angels (one of whom announces the birth to the shepherds at right), the ox and ass, Mary and her child, old Joseph seated to one side, and the two serving women with the infant Jesus and the basin in which he is washed.

The article asked why Jesus is shown twice, as though it were some great mystery.  The explanation it gave was that the two representations symbolize his “divine” and “human” natures.

The correct explanation, of course, is that this double representation was simply the old way of showing two scenes from a narrative.  In one scene here, Mary is holding the infant Jesus.  The other scene is the washing of the infant Jesus by the two serving women.

If we look at a 10th century Byzantine ivory carving of the Nativity, we can see how these same elements were present:

(Walters Gallery)
(Walters Gallery)

Here, instead of Giotto’s warm depiction of Mary holding her child, we find the traditional, rather cold Eastern Orthodox image of Mary turned away from the child.  And then below, we see the child again, this time in the wash basin, being bathed by the two serving women.  At left sits Joseph, and at right is a shepherd.  Three angels are above, one of whom is obviously making his announcement to the shepherd, who is looking upward.

Now if you have been reading this site for some time, you will already know that showing a subject twice is simply the icon way of depicting ongoing action by showing two or more scenes or events from a narrative in the same painting.  There is no great mystery or symbolism to it.  As I mentioned in a previous posting, it is a kind of precursor to animation, and we might call it “static” animation, in that it indicates a change of focus from one event to another, but without actual movement of the image; it is the eye of the viewer that moves.  And of course early Italian art was strongly influenced by the Byzantine tradition.

People often give these things fanciful and imaginative interpretations, but they tend to overlook the art historical aspect — the development and changes in iconography over time.


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