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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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The Nativity by Piero Della Francesca was one of the Italian artist's last paintings. This religious scene was created in oil on a panel of poplar in 1470-1475.

The original painting is currently on display in room 61 at the National Gallery in London alongside another great work by Piero, the Baptism Of Christ. Unfortunately, The Nativity painting is not in the greatest condition - there are areas of the work that look like they have been overcleaned and parts were perhaps not fully completed.

Piero Della Francesca was one of the early Italian Renaissance artists but he did change his methods and styles a little through his career. In The Nativity, there are some signs of a Flemish influence which can be seen in his use of a brown underpainting of the figures. In this particular painting, the nativity scene appears to be taking place high on a hill in Tuscany. It is believed that Sansepolcro can be seen in the background of the painting, this is where Piero was born and he is known to have kept close links with the region.

Behind the characters are detailed views of a sweeping valley to the left side and the Italian city on the right-hand side. In the foreground is the newly-born baby Christ lying on the edge of Mary’s cloak, and Mary herself is kneeling in prayer. Five angels are standing behind Christ and are singing in adoration. Two of these angels are also playing lutes. Two shepherds are part of the group, and Joseph is seen seated on a stool and looking thoughtfully out over the valley. A braying donkey and a quiet ox are nearby, and on the roof of the shelter is a magpie – a bird not normally associated with the nativity but one that is seen in other work by Piero.

There are different painting methods used in The Nativity. Mary’s face has been painted finely and with care and it has a porcelain-like quality. In contrast, the expanse of foreground is roughly completed with very little detail. Not much is known about Piero’s late years but he did turn away from painting as his eyesight failed and he became blind. The Nativity may have been left incomplete due to his disappearing sight.