The Nativity

WAG 1016


The painting is typical of the small devotional works, produced for sale, rather than commissioned by private patrons. The unusually sad expressions on the faces of Joseph and Mary recall those painted by the Leiden artist Cornelis Engelbertszon (about 1468-1533) and his followers. Also unusual is the tapir-like braying donkey. This painting may have been owned by Charles Frederick Greville (1749-1809), one of the lovers of Emma Hamilton, who later became the mistress of Admiral Nelson. Like William Roscoe’s collection of paintings, Greville’s had a number of early 14th and 15th century works. It included another fragment of the fresco by Spinello Aretino of which Roscoe also owned sections. When Greville sold his collection in 1810 it was said to show the ‘progress of painting’, just like Roscoe’s in 1816. He also shared with Roscoe a passion for botany. In the past the painting has also been attributed to other artists including the German printmaker and sculptor Ludwig Krug (1490-1532) and the Netherlandish painter Jan de Cock (active by 1506 and dead before 1527). Small details in the distant background here show scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary. On the left, she is shown visiting her cousin Elizabeth. On the right, the Archangel Gabriel announces to her that she will be the mother of Christ. Mary and Jesus hold an apple. The fruit refers to the sin of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. When this painting was sold in Liverpool in 1839 it was said wrongly to be by the great 15th-century Bruges-based artist. It may have been painted in Brussels in the 16th century. It was acquired before 1842 by the Liverpool Royal Institution that William Roscoe helped found. Liverpool’s economic development grew directly from Britain’s involvement with transatlantic slavery: the kidnapping, enslavement and forced migration of people from West Africa to the Americas and many to the Caribbean. Many members of the Royal Institution made their fortunes directly through the trade or indirectly through the wider economy. This wealth was largely how they were able to bring rare art and treasures, such as this, to the city.