One of my favorite works in our permanent collection is The Nativity, a painting attributed to the Italian artist Pietro Sardo and created around the year 1500. This large work, almost five feet tall, was once the left wing of a triptych, a three-part painting. The panels were separated for sale in the early twentieth century; the central panel is now at the Allen Memorial Art Museum at Oberlin College. Our painting shows Mary and Joseph looking down at the just-born baby Jesus. What I love about this work is the emotions of the figures and the incredible level of detail. When I look at this painting, I am first drawn in by the expressions on the faces of Mary and Joseph: the way Mary stares tenderly at her new baby, the way Joseph touches his face and looks lovingly at Jesus. The bright red of Joseph’s coat then leads my eye down towards Jesus, who seems to squirm like a real baby.
My gaze then travels around the painting, taking in the details. In the upper left corner, we see three shepherds resting by some trees, looking up at a winged figure in the sky. In the center background, we find a somewhat fantastical cityscape, with spiky towers jutting up into the sky. Riding down a path, towards the foreground, are the Magi on horseback, one sporting a bright, gold crown. Returning to the main figures, the artist has carefully delineated every hair on Joseph’s head and in his beard and trimmed Mary’s dark blue cloak with a forest green lining. At the very bottom of the painting are beautifully detailed flowers that frame the picture and focus our attention on baby Jesus, who is surrounded by rays of golden light. The longer you look at the painting, the more you discover.
Bryn C. Schockmel, Ph.D., is the Samuel H. Kress Foundation Fellow for Provenance Research at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art. Bryn’s work involves tracing the provenance, or ownership history, of a diverse selection of objects from the Museum’s permanent collection, including paintings, sculptures, and works on paper from the Renaissance to the present.
Credit: Attributed to Pietro Sardo (Italian). The Nativity, An Extensive Landscape with the Magi on a Road, ca. 1510. Oil on panel, 58¾ x 20¼ in. Oklahoma City Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Melton, 1985.017