One of the reasons for Christianity's appeal is that it follows the life cycle of one man, from BIRTH to DEATH to AFTERLIFE. The celebration of the Death occurs in the Northern Hemisphere in the spring and is given a balancing levity with the joy of the Resurrection and the season at Easter.
The Birth should be a joyous occasion, as most births are, but the birth in this case is always celebrated in the solemnity of Winter in the Northern Hemisphere in balance to the joy. And often in Nativity scenes as painted in the Renaissance you can find references to the Death. In the example above, for instance, Domenico Ghirlandaio's Nativity painted in 1480-5 as an altarpiece for the Sassetti Chapel in the church of Santa Trinita in Florence, the child lies on the ground (well, actually on his mother's robe on the ground) directly in front of an ancient Roman sarcophagus that is decorated with a wreath and a Latin inscription:
Numen Ait Quae Me Conteg
While Fulvius, Augur of Pompey, was falling by the sword, he said: the urn that enshrouds me shall
serve for a god.
The inscription refers to a prophecy by Fulvius, as he was slain by Sulla, that his burial sarcophagus would be used as a birthplace for a god. The references to the past and the future are contained within the same open tomb. The baby's head leans (complete with foreshortened halo) up against the tomb and we are meant to remember Christ's death at the moment of his birth, the Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, of Christ's life.
In this case the painter paints himself into the painting as a shepherd witnessing the birth.
He kneels and points to the Child and garland with his left hand and to himself with his right hand.
Since Domenico's real last name was Bigordi and his nickname Ghirlandaio or Garland-Maker, the wreath on the sarcophagus presents a second kind of signature. The ox and ass stand behind the sarcophagus and Joseph looks up in the sky at the angel who has brought the tidings of the birth.
back of the scene, while the figure of the baby lies in the foreground. So behind the child is the
old faith, represented in the ancient pagan sarcophagus, the pilaster with Corinthian capital, and in
the Roman triumphal arch with the Latin inscription to Pompey the Great
"Gn[eo] Pompeo Magno Hircanus Pont[ifex] P[osuit]" ("The priest Hircanus erected [this arch] in honor of Gnaius Pompey the Great"). The most visible letters are POMPEO MAGNO HIRCA.
The irony here is that Pompey had had a triumphal arch erected for his own success on the battlefield,
but the baby in the foreground is presented as triumphing over any material success of a Roman general. (The background is read as in the past chronologically, so that even the earlier story of the
angel coming to the shepherds is set in the background.) The old pagan beliefs of Rome have been superseded by the belief in Christ as the new God. The present time is emphasized by the artist in the pilaster with the end date of the painting, 1485, that leads the viewer's eye down to the child who looks out at the viewer.
The Three Kings (Magi) who are travelling from the East to bring presents to the child are
shown in the far distance, on horseback under the arch. They can be identified by the slight suggestions of crowns on their heads, by their being singled out under the arc of the arch, and
by the fact that they are represented as the three Ages of man, middle-aged, old, and young, from
left to right.
Their beliefs are also taken over by the Christian faith in the front, so they are not prominent or
easy to see.
The sarcophagus, arch, and roof of the temple are all damaged, passe. The baby is at the center
and is the focus of the shepherds, animals, and mother, if not the figure of Joseph. As has been
pointed out by Leo Steinberg, the child is naked so that we don't forget that, even though he is a God,
he is a human baby boy; the humanity of the story is emphasized here.
But Ghirlandaio, though an extremely talented painter, does not show much of a sense of humor in this scene. All is seriousness in the takeover by Christianity of the pagan beliefs
of old. And the sarcophagus reminds us that this story ends in tragedy, the child living to age 33
when he is put to death on a cross (that, too, suggested in the Corinthian pillar with cross beams
in the roof.)
When painting for the serious banker and his wife, the Sassetti patrons in this case, Ghirlandaio makes sure they are reassured that their payment for Christian scenes is a worthy investment. They are, after all, kneeling and facing in towards the altarpiece from either side in the chapel. These wall frescoes are also painted by Ghirlandaio.
Nera Corsi, wife of Francesco Sassetti Francesco Sassetti
Under them an appropriate date, 25th December, 1480, the day the contract was signed, 1480 years
after the original Birth. (Anno Domini 1480, 25 December)
The painter points to the Child for them because they pray for the salvation of their souls after
death through this Birth. It explains why the painter doesn't really look at the shepherd next to him;
he is looking beyond him to the kneeling patron.
The patrons kneel as Mary does, the artist kneels as Mary does. The child signifies a new beginning
in a way that is more than just a newborn come into the world. He signifies for the believers the chance not to ever die.
Merry Christmas, indeed!