The National Gallery gave the entire country a Christmas gift when they announced the completion of the conservation and restoration of Piero della Francesca’s Nativity. The gallery acquired the famous painting in the late 19th century in damaged state. There were empty spaces all around, which was uncharacteristic of Piero’s paintings. Due to its condition at the time of acquisition, the curators thought the painting was incomplete. However, the latest interpretations posit that the painting is, in fact, complete.
Piero della Francesca’s Nativity first came into discussion in June 1874, when the National Gallery acquired it with other works at the Barker sale at Christie. It was in terrible condition, with significant parts of the painting damaged from inadequate restoration. The painting originally shows the Virgin Mary kneeling before a baby Christ, with Joseph on a donkey behind her and two shepherds. The spirituality of the painting is pronounced by the presence of angels singing heavenly hymns.
Joseph’s clothes had become thin in its damaged form, the braying ass in the stable was very translucent, and the shepherds’ faces were so damaged that underdrawings were visible. These contributed to the original assumption that the painting was never completed. However, National Gallery researchers have interpreted the spaces to be an artistic choice by Piero, and the latest restoration can be said to reflect that interpretation. The conservation and restoration took three years, and in December 2022 the painting was finally made available to the public in Room 17a of the National Gallery in London.
While many people believe the restoration done by the National Gallery to be beneficial to the preservation of the painting, some disagree. After putting the painting back on public display, some art critics had nothing but harsh words to convey their disappointment at the current state of the painting. The criticisms were mostly about reimagining the work, with retouches said to have changed the painting from the original intent of the painter.
One of the most obvious changes is in the faces of the shepherds. When the National Gallery acquired the painting, their faces were blank. While that was an obvious sign of damage, it contributed to the mystery of the painting and was believed to have taken nothing away from the original aura. However, the expressions borne out of the recent conservation efforts have been tagged “gormless”, “clumsy” and other negative adjectives by some critics.
To Piero’s ardent lovers, the criticism is not totally uncalled for. Nativity is one of the last paintings made by the Renaissance artist. It is the latest in the chronological order of his existing works. It is also special because Piero made the painting for himself and his family’s palace in Tuscany, and the landscape is believed to reflect Tuscan realities.
Nativity has been a subject of great discourse since its acquisition in June 1874. The cultural importance of the works shows that they will continue to draw great attention from the public and enthusiasts. Overall, the necessity of the restoration cannot be challenged. Only the extent of changes made to it was controversial as some believe the essence of the painting to have been altered.