Great Works: The Nativity, 1470-75, by Piero della Francesca

National Gallery, London

The issue of when and where Christ's place of birth is to be set has always been an interesting and vexing one, bound up with matters of national pride and perhaps even of imperial ambition. The godhead is always obliged to spread itself so thinly. At this moment in 2011, we showed on this page a Nativity scene by Peter Breughel the Elder, an image of the three kings offering gifts to the infant.

That product of a Northern European sensibility, almost gleefully savage in its degree of irreverence, could scarcely be more different from what you are gazing at now. Remember "In the Bleak Midwinter", Christina Rossetti's carol of the early 1870s commissioned by Scribner's Monthly? There, the earth beneath the child's infant bones was said to be hard as iron.

Here, on the other hand, in this monumentally serene and tranquil work by a man who was both painter and mathematical theorist – the mathematics gained in importance as his eyesight faded – the child has been born on a warm summer's day in Tuscany, just outside Piero della Francesca's birthplace of Borgo Sansepolcro, on a stretch of rising ground, which affords a view of a dainty, touristy Tuscan landscape on the left (complete with with a soodling river), a near perfect disposition of lollipop-shaped trees, and an equally typical Tuscan cityscape on the right.

The scene itself, thrust forward on a promontory of ground, so that it stands high above what we see in the distance to left and right, is like a stage set, with that backdrop of the byre, whose roof is set, unusually for this painter, at an awkwardly slumped angle to the horizontal. In the middle of this foregrounded space, five angels, two bearing lutes, seem to waft forwards as if their enthusiastic devotion might eventually cause them to step on that which they reverence.

Two of them are open-mouthed in joyful song. The tune is taken up by the braying ass in the dilapidated byre behind them, which seems to suggest that the whole of creation is caught up in this collective act of worship. Not quite all. What does not sing is that huge magpie on the roof, a bird well known for its chatter-box habits. The sight of Emmanuel down there on the ground has struck it dumb. The atmosphere is still, dream-like, rapt. The angels seem almost to waft towards us en masse, their feet barely touching the ground.

The virgin, conventionally beautiful for her time, with a skin tone of glazed porcelain, slender fingers carefully, prayerfully steepled, and hair dressed, a gingery cloud, looks down with reverence at the imploring, naked babe. Joseph, on the other hand, with his right leg casually crossed over his left, affording us a good view of the underside of his foot – and here is something that this picture has in common with the Breughel cited earlier – seems to have his mind on other things. The contrast of pink and black is a marvel.

Sadly, the painting is not in very good condition. Or is it that it was never finished? Perhaps both one and the other. Look at the faces of those two shepherds, one holding a staff as he points heavenward – at a star that we cannot see? The paint seems to have been rubbed, almost scoured, away by some drunken, heavy-handed conservator. There are also suggestions, here and there, that Piero might have done more had he not broken off to... do what exactly? We shall never know. Joseph's lovely pink wrap is painted very thinly. You can see through a leg of one of the beasts right to the wall behind.

And the whole work is captured in a reverentially jewelled box of a frame, complete with delicately fluted gilded pilasters that terminate in a flourish of Corinthian capitals. As W H Auden once said of another of Breughel's subjects: perfection of a kind was what he was after.

About the artist: Piero della Francesca (c. 1415-1492)

The somewhat retiring Italian painter Piero della Francesca was little celebrated during his lifetime, being overshadowed by the reputations of noisier and more fashionable contemporaries. Posterity has judged otherwise. His exquisitely serene works, often monumental in scale, possess an extraordinary clarity and mastery of form – thanks, in part, to his parallel life as an important mathematical theorist. London's National Gallery devotes an entire, exquisite room to him.

Arts and Entertainment
Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker and Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham
Downton

Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
News
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
arts
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Comedy
Arts and Entertainment

Review

These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Daenerys Targaryen, played by Emilia Clarke, faces new problems

Sek, k'athjilari! (That’s “yes, definitely” to non-native speakers).

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Polly Morgan

art
Arts and Entertainment
The kid: (from left) Oona, Geraldine, Charlie and Eugene Chaplin

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Banksy image in Folkestone before it was vandalised

art
Arts and Entertainment

Review: Series 5, episode 4 Downton Abbey
Arts and Entertainment

Music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album
    Hugh Bonneville & Peter James: 'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'

    How We Met: Hugh Bonneville & Peter James

    'Peter loves his classic cars; I've always pootled along fine with a Mini Metro. I think I lack his panache'
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's heavenly crab dishes don't need hours of preparation

    Bill Granger's heavenly crab recipes

    Scared off by the strain of shelling a crab? Let a fishmonger do the hard work so you can focus on getting the flavours right
    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    Radamel Falcao: How faith and love drive the Colombian to glory

    After a remarkable conversion from reckless defender to prolific striker, Monaco's ace says he wants to make his loan deal at Old Trafford permanent
    Terry Venables: Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England

    Terry Venables column

    Premier League managers must not be allowed to dictate who plays and who does not play for England
    The Inside Word: Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past

    Michael Calvin's Inside Word

    Brendan Rodgers looks to the future while Roy Hodgson is ghost of seasons past