Circa 1600

The Nativity

Oil on canvas: 16 1/4 x 13 in. 41.25 x 33 cm.

Provenance: Thomas James Holmes Culverwell of Litfield House, Clifton, Bristol (1840-1926)
Leslie James Culverwell (1897-1969)
Bridget Verdon-Roe, his daughter
By descent to the present owner

Despite its specific Venetian references, in particular to Carlo Caliari, our work shares an affinity with the style of northern artists working in Venice during the late 16th.century, and in particular Hans van Aachen.  The connection has been convincingly argued by Thomas Dalla Costa, who sees in the painting a familiar fusion of the Netherlandish crowded composition and attention to detail, and the saturated colouring and sumptuous ambience of the Veneto.

In this respect Van Aachen was typical, not only of the north-south interaction, but also as an itinerant painter working for princely courts at the heart of Europe.  His Italian sojourn, which started in 1574, centred on Venice for about fourteen years, where he absorbed himself in the Venetian style by making copies of the most famous works in local churches.  In addition he visited Rome in 1575 and later worked in Florence between 1582-3, where he specialised in portraits of the Medici and the local aristocracy. This was all experience that could easily be exported to the north, and in 1589 he was employed at the Wittelsbach court in Bavaria, again executing portraits and religious scenes.  It was in Munich that Van Aachen was introduced to the ambience of that mysterious and charismatic Maecenas the Emperor Rudolf II, whose court at Prague was one of the main centres of patronage in Europe. This proved to be the final flowering of Van Aachen’s career, a time when he produced a series of mythological and allegorical canvases in a sensual idiom which celebrated the interests of the Emperor and conformed to the style of international mannerism.

Although officially the imperial court painter, Van Aachen did not have to reside in Prague and on the Emperor’s behalf he travelled all over Germany on diplomatic business, as well as executing portraits of possible brides for Rudolph’s hand.

Our work does not belong to this mature phase of Van Aachen’s career, but was probably executed by an artist in the ambit of the master when he was painting copies of works in Venetian churches. It is infused with the sensuous colouring and presentation of Veronese in particular, though as we have noted the more complex arrangement of figures suggests some Netherlandish input.