The Madonna kneels outside, praying over the newly born Christ Child. Behind, the sleeping St. Joseph and a more alert St. John the Baptist make an almost sculptural devotional group whose artesan quality is underlined by such details as the richly textured tooling of the gilded haloes. In the background a shepherd tends his flocks while the angel delivers the glad tidings; to the left rise the walls and churches of a Renaissance city, alluding in part to Jerusalem but also, of course, to Florence whose recently constructed dome by Brunelleschi is clearly visible.
The scene derives from Saint Bridget of Sweden's vision of the Nativity in 1373, which gained wide circulation in Italy, especially as a subject for private devotion in the middle of the fifteenth century. 'When therefore the Virgin felt that she already had borne her child, she immediately worshipped him, her head bent down and her hands clasped with great honor and reverence'. This subject became a staple of quattrocento Florentine painters, including Botticelli, Cosimo Rosselli, Jacopo Sellaio and the Master of the Castello Nativity. Often these private devotional panels had rounded tops, as does the present work, and this particular example (despite its rugged handling) is remarkable for its genuine untouched condition and its beautiful original frame.
Domenico Zanobi, whose corpus was first assembled by Everett Fahy (Paragone, 197, July 1966, p. 28ff, and Some Followers of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Ph.D. Dissertation, Harvard University, 1976, pp. 172-3) was first known as the Master of the Johnson Nativity after a painting in the Johnson Collection in Philadelphia. Considered by Berenson to be a close follower of Cosimo Rosselli, Domenico was an artist who adapted to the advances made by Filippo Lippi, then Alesso Baldovinetti and, by the late 1470s, by Botticelli. Less refined than Baldovinetti or the Master of the Castello Nativity, Zanobi emerges as a highly distinctive artist who specialized in the production of devotional panels such as this.
The identity of Domenico di Zanobi, the artist formerly known as The Master of the Johnson Nativity, was first established in 1992 by Acidini Luchinat. He began his career in the circle of Filippo Lippi and Pesellino. He may have been the Domenico recorded as working with Lippi in Prato in 1460. He outlived Lippi and worked in Florence. He rented Paolo Uccello's former workshop on the via delle Terme and collaborated with a number of artists including Filippino Lippi and Domenico de Michelino. His own style evolved showing the influence of a number of contemporary Florentine painters, among them Andrea del Castagno, Alesso Baldovinetti and Sandro Botticelli.
We are grateful to Mr. Everett Fahy for suggesting the attribution to the Master of the Johnson Nativity on the basis of photographs (written communication, 30 November 2006).