Domenico Ghirlandaio ran one of the biggest and most successful artist workshops in Florence towards the end of the fifteenth century, and it used to be thought that this nativity scene was produced by a junior member under his supervision.
But cleaning in the 1990s revealed just how good some of the painting here is, and important parts of the panel are now thought to have been executed by the Master's own hand.
Look at the beautiful head of the Virgin Mary for instance, the minute brush strokes that give shape to her face and neck, the individual strands of her hair picked out in gold; and look at her delicate, gossamer-thin veil, the same material as used for the Christ's swaddling clothes. Look then at the brilliantly subtle expression on the face of Joseph sitting next to her. He seems to look with both love and bewilderment at the child born to his virgin wife.
It's hard to believe that the same hand that produced these exceptionally fine passages of paint could also have been responsible for the simplified depiction of the wall and roof of the cattle shed that shelters the Holy Family.
Not that Ghirlandaio's apprentices were necessarily hacks. In 1487 his workshop admitted the twelve-year-old Michelangelo Buonarroti as an apprentice.
In later life Michelangelo would play down Ghirlandaio's influence on his work, but it is to his first teacher's eternal credit that the painter of the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel ceiling first learnt the technique in his workshop.
Here's conservator Spike Bucklow:
'The colours in Ghirlandaio's nativity have all changed, like a lot of late medieval paintings they it would originally have been much brighter.'
The cloak of the Virgin Mary for example was originally a fine match lighter shade of blue.
'The blue has changed the most of all of the colours on the painting because it uses a pigment called azurite which was very difficult to work with. Azurite had a very coarse texture if you wanted a very rich color. The artist liked that because, when lit by candle, the whole of the Virgin's robe could glitter in the flickering candle-light, but unfortunately this rough surface texture was soon buried under a layer of wax and soot, each time the candles were blown out, so it would slowly, over maybe 100 years, turn black. That's what happened with this painting, and it's possible that in trying to clean that black layer off a restorer in the past has actually removed some of the azurite paint as well.'
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