CONSTANT exposure to the National Gallery's extraordinary picture collection has meant that paintings I was unfamiliar with have gradually come forward. One of these is Piero's late Nativity, a picture which is infused with enormous pictorial wisdom and experience. A shepherd points to the sky, perhaps relating the vision of the angelic host which has invited him and his companion to Bethlehem; Saint Joseph listens to him, sitting cross-legged on the ass's saddle; the ass itself brays wildly, while the ox peers between the musician angels and the Virgin, at the Christ Child. On top of the stable perches a magpie, perhaps presaging sorrow for Mary. In his old age, Piero seems to have relaxed his concern for creating still and stark archetypal representations, and even for accurate scale: the Virgin is so much larger than all the other figures. As in his celebrated Baptism, Piero succeeds in making it appear entirely plausible that this Gospel episode, the birth of Christ, took place in Tuscany.
Gabriele Finaldi is the new curator of later Italian and Spanish paintings at the National Gallery. 1992 is the quincentenary of the death of Piero della Francesca