The Nativity

WAG 1193


Possibly painted in the workshop of the Antwerp artist Marcellus Coffermans (about 1530-1578). His daughter, Ysabella, also worked as a painter. In the background the angel Gabriel is announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds. The angel holds a banner inscribed in Latin: ‘Glory to God in the highest’. By 1857 this painting was thought to be by a German artist, Michael Wolgemut (1434/7-1519). He is best known as the teacher of the great Renaissance artist Dürer. Roscoe owned four portrait prints by Wolgemut. Apart from Dürer, Roscoe had a low opinion of the quality of German artists in general. He found their style ‘hard and tasteless’ compared to other north European painters and believed that their ‘barbarism imposed shackles even upon the genius of Dürer’. This painting was not attributed to Coffermans until 1963. 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.