Caravaggio’s painting of the nativity is, in many ways, a familiar scene. Mary and Joseph sit beside the child Jesus, while an angel hovers above them. A shepherd leans on his staff, and an ox surveys the scene. But in an interesting twist, the artist also depicts two figures who are not mentioned in the Gospel — largely because, at the time of Christ’s birth, they were not yet born.
One of the figures, St. Francis of Assisi, is depicted standing behind the holy family. He seems to have arrived in the traditional, brown Franciscan robes, his hands folded. The other figure, St. Lawrence, stands in the forefront in his gold-colored deaconate garb.
The unusual additions can be explained by the fact that the painting was commissioned by the Company of St. Francis, a lay apostolate that was in charge of the Oratory of St. Lawrence in Palermo, Italy. When the company initiated restorations to the building in 1669, they commissioned Caravaggio to create this painting and to include a few of their favorite patron saints. The members of the lay oratory wanted to create a scene that people could relate to and, it seems, one that connected their apostolate to the holy family.
Yet the inclusion of these two saints is not the only anomaly. In addition to depicting people that did not yet exist, Caravaggio also conflates the Italian clothing of his time with the backdrop of the Middle East. It also features an angel holding an actual banner of praise. The holy family appears almost glamorous and perhaps a bit too put-together for one that has traveled so far. But then again, most nativity scenes are creative interpretations of this historic night.
And, in this case, it is the inaccuracies that can make the painting most effective as a spiritual inspiration. Caravaggio depicted the holy family as a group of people to whom viewers of the painting could relate. The figures bear no halos. Joseph looks a bit younger and more muscular than we might normally imagine, and even Mary’s appearance in Italian dress must have helped her image to appear more relevant to onlookers. Caravaggio’s unique interpretation ….. READ MORE THE ARTICLE ON THE HUFFIGTONPOST.COM