This charming and exquisitely detailed Nativity reflects, in its iconography, the lasting impact of the mystical revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden and was composed between 1360 and 1370. The kneeling Virgin adores the Christ Child, divine light emanating from his naked body, while the whole scene is observed by the Heavenly Host and God the Father. From above, the dove of the Holy Spirit descends in a ray of light towards the infant. The kneeling shepherd and Saint Joseph at rest (not here holding a candle) derive from more conventional representations of the Nativity. Copies of the writings of Saint Bridget were known to have been in libraries in fifteenth century Siena - among them those of the Compagnia dei Disciplinati, San Francesco, Niccolo Borghesi and Giorgio Tolomeo.
Carl Strehlke (in, K. Christiansen, ed. op. cit. above) has suggested that this beautiful panel, which combines both naturalistic detail and a formal grace in composition, might have been commissioned by 'a member of the Compagnia dei Disciplinati with a special veneration for St. Bridget or a patron like Urbano di Pietro del Bello, rector of the hospital between 1445 and 1450 who commissioned the sacristy frescoes'. Its vertical shape and the large unpainted part originally covered by an engaged frame precludes the possibility that this once formed part of a predella and supports Strehlke's thesis that the original function of this panel was as an object of private devotion.
Il Vecchietta - his nickname 'little old one' has so far not been explained - was almost certainly a pupil of Sassetta. However, although enrolled in the Siena painters' guild in 1428, he does not seem to have been active in Siena until 1439 and worked instead for much of his early career as an assistant to Masolino in Rome and then at Castiglione Olona near Milan where he painted a cycle of frescoes for Cardinal Castiglione Branda. These frescoes include a view of the Santo in Padua and it is likely that Vecchietta's personal interest in highly refined and complicated architectural settings - an interest he would pass on to Francesco di Giorgio - was inspired by the archeologically oriented humanism that flourished at that time in Northern Italy, particularly in Padua. Returning to Siena, Vecchietta was entrusted with another ambitious fresco program, this time the decoration of the Pilgrim's Hospice, which he executed during the 1440s. He would go on to enjoy the support of such enlightened patrons as Aeneas Piccolomini (Pope Pius II) and Niccolo Martinozzi but increasingly turned his attentions to sculpture. Like a number of Sienese painters, notably Neroccio de' Landi and Beccafumi, Vecchietta was extremely versatile, succeeding as a sculptor as well as a painter. His extant sculptures, all bronzes, include the famous Resurrection (Frick Collection, New York) and the Risen Christ (S. Maria della Scala, Siena) which is said to have influenced Michelangelo's marble of the same subject in S. Maria Sopra Minerva, Rome.
This devotional panel can be dated to the most fertile years of Vecchietta's production as a painter, the 1440s, and may be compared to a fresco of the same subject (fig. 1 - although, curiously, it incorporates an Annunciation) painted for the sacristy of Vecchietta's parish church where he was buried, S. Maria della Scala, between 1446 and 1449. The frontal arrangement of the scene, the angels hovering over the roof of the barn, the pose of St. Joseph, even the animals (though their positions are reversed in the fresco) are all so unmistakably similar as to argue for a similar date for the panel.