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The Birth of the Virgin

The Birth of the Virgin

Jusepe Leonardo (1601-1653). Museo del Prado – Madrid. 1640.

Jusepe Leonardo was a Spanish painter, born in 1601 in Calatayud and he died in Saragossa around 1653. He lived and worked in Spain’s artistic Golden Century. This was the most famous period for Spanish art, which coincided and was made possible by Spain’s highest wealth extracted from the overseas colonies that were dominated by the Habsburg emperors and the later kings of Spain. Leonardo has made a picture that reminds us of the great Flemish examples. The multiplicity of various scenes of one event was a tradition in medieval pictures. Leonardo applied this tradition to show various stages of the birth of the Virgin in one frame.

In the top left corner of the painting, Anne is in her bed just before the birth. She has called for the midwife and her bed is opened for the birth. In the lower corner then, in another scene, Anne has given birth and women are taking care of the newborn girl. This is a scene of happy colours, while the rest of the room is in the darker tones. These darker tones were a tradition of Spanish seventeenth painting called ‘tenebrist naturalism’. Leonardo however has brought much brighter tones and more gaiety in his picture. By the show of emotions, this picture joins both Baroque in general and the typical tenure of Spanish tradition.

The structure of the picture has been cleverly composed. The scene with the newly born baby Mary is in the right lower corner. Two figures at least point to the upper left corner, where Anne lies in her bed as just before the birth. This line is in the diagonal of the frame. Finally, in the other corner – the upper right corner – Joachim as an elder man enters the door. He is only hinted at since this is a scene of women. Indeed, only women are around Anne and also only women do their best to lovingly serve the baby, as if they were well aware of the glory that this child would be.

The picture of Jusepe Leonardo joins a tradition of medieval painting based on folklore and legends. Pictures of the ‘Birth of the Virgin’ were quite popular since they reminded women of the important place they occupied in communal life. These scenes underscored the female line leading to Jesus. Saint Anne, Mary’s mother had been a powerful figure as probably all grandmothers had been. Mothers are usually young inexperienced girls but grandmothers were strong women that had lived a life of hardships and disillusions and had grown tough in the process. Anne had outlived three husbands. She had married three times and had three daughters all called Mary. The devotion to Saint Anne was very strong in medieval times. The theme of the ‘Birth of the Virgin’ was popular with women because it was a theme entirely of women in which reference was made to two births: the one of Mary and also the birth of Jesus. Scenes like these were often painted for private devotion.

Magnificent frescoes of the birth of Mary were made in Italy, where the cult of Saint Anne was particularly popular. In Florence, in the church of Santa Maria Novella are frescoes of the ‘Birth of the Virgin’ made in 1485-1490 by Domenico Ghirlandaio, in which Anne is being visited by some of the most prominent ladies of the town led by Lodovica Tornabuoni. Jusepe Leonardo showed with his picture a century and a half later that the tradition of painting these scenes had not died out. He made a narrative picture, aimed at illustrating scenes of the life of the most important people around Jesus and he chose a theme dear to women, thus rallying the larger part of the devotees who came to pray.

Jesus was born from the House of David, the royal House of the Jews, through Joseph. But this explanation had a problem since Mary had been a virgin. Yet, according to the ‘Golden Legend’, Mary also was of the House of David. Among David’s sons were Nathan and Solomon. In Nathan’s line were Levi, then Melchi, Panthar and Barpanthar. Joachim, the father of Mary, was a son of Barpanthar. Thus there was a straight line from Mary to David. Matthew gives the complete line of descendence from David and his son Solomon to Joseph.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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