‘Nativity’, Alabaster Relief

England, Nottingham, 2nd half of the 15th cent.
Alabaster, 40.5 x 26 x 3 cm

Maria´s veil...

or her golden hair?

Bridget´s view

The depiction of the Birth of Christ is in keeping with the contemporary theological pictorial tradition of the time. During her trip to the Holy Land in 1372, Bridget of Sweden had a vision in which she saw the Virgin taking off her shoes, placing her cloak next to her and removing the veil from her head, letting her golden hair fall onto her shoulders. After the birth she knelt down in front of the new-born child that was lying naked on the ground; he emitted a light that was ‘brighter than the sun’. The Son of God was not lying in swaddling clothes in a bed nor was he in a crib surrounded by straw.

A miraculous fiber

magical, but true

Byssus, the sea silk

Although not depicted here, the veil of the Virgin Mary – a type of maphorion – was long considered one of the most important reliquaries in Christendom. It was kept in the church of Saint Mary of Blachernae until the sacking of Constantinople in 1204. The veil is now to be found in basilica in Assisi. It is made of the fabulous and extremely rare byssus cloth, otherwise known as sea silk, that is won from a fibre spun by a species of pen shell native to the Mediterranean. Today, virtually all knowledge of working with byssus has been lost. There is only one weaver left in the world today who still works with sea silk, Chiara Vigo. She lives on Sardinia.

Sweet Mandorla

Divine halo

The glory of the Lord

The Christ Child is depicted naked, lying within a mandorla, on an altar-like dais. What does this signify? A mandorla, derived from the Italian for ‘almond’, is a radiant glory – a halo – surrounding a figure in its entirety. It is the visible expression of the power of salvation emanating from a divine being. Here, it surrounds the Son of God, who is holding an orb in his right hand – the symbol of God’s rule over the world. In art history, Christ is more commonly depicted within a mandorla as an adult, shown as Majestas Domini, ‘Christ in Majesty’.