This painting shows the birth of Jesus as recounted in the Bible and is a wonderful, small work of art. Let’s focus first on the frame: the scene is surrounded by a painted metal frame with recesses for relics, objects believed to be a part of a holy person’s body or one of their belongings. Each relic is accompanied by a saint’s name written on a small piece of paper. The owner of this work would have used this object for prayer, seeking assistance from the holy figures in the painting and the saints present through their relics. Relics were, and still are, venerated widely and were often thought to have special powers, for instance the power to heal the sick. They were also often prized possessions of the churches that housed them and the destination of pilgrimages, which in turn had economic relevance. Having important relics meant revenue! Our small relics, however, were used in a more intimate context.
Now back to the painting, which is not what one might first expect. It is, in fact, unique in our collection and a rare thing overall. While most paintings at the time were painted on wood or canvas, this painting was done on stone. In the early 1600s, some artists began painting on stone because of its assumed durability. Later they began using colorful stones, often with striking patterns. These artists incorporated the natural appearance of the stone into their compositions in highly creative ways and our painting is a great example of that. Here, the brown cushion on which the child rests, the neck of the donkey, the inside of Mary’s blue cloak, the shepherd’s pants in the right foreground, and much of the sky are, in fact, unpainted. The artist is, so to speak, painting with stone!