Dressed in delicate robes with the edges embroidered in gold, the Virgin Mary kneels on the ground beside baby Jesus in a dark forest. The Christ child lays on a blanket of grass and flowers, a translucent veil wrapped around his lower body. This is essentially a Nativity scene (the moments immediately following the birth of Jesus Christ), a commonly depicted subject in the life of Christ. However, as we’ll see, this Nativity includes several non-traditional, mystical elements.
At the top of the painting, God the Father appears in a dark cloud, dressed in the same red and blue robes as the Virgin Mary and gazing down with arms spread in a gesture of benediction. A white dove, representative of the Holy Spirit, floats just below the clouds from which God emerges. Below God and the dove, golden rays of light extend down from the heavens. One of these golden rays forms a straight line to the newborn Christ child, emphasizing the connection between God, the dove, and Christ—the three parts of the Trinity, the Christian belief in God’s tripartite nature.
Standing to the left of the Virgin and Christ is a young Saint John the Baptist, identifiable by his hair cloak, the fuzzy garment seen beneath his red robe. Behind him, an enigmatic figure kneels in the rocky landscape, bowing his head in prayer. John the Baptist holds a staff topped with a stylized cross, around which wraps a fluttering scroll inscribed with the words, “Ecce Agnus Dei” (Behold the Lamb of God)—a reminder of Christ’s sacrificial role for the salvation of humanity, according to Christian beliefs. The painting’s rich, dark greens, the soft expressions of its figures, and the gold leaf additions imbue this Nativity with a quiet that only amplifies the sacredness of the scene itself.
Piety, meditation, humility
Completed around 1459, Fra Filippo Lippi’s Adoration in the Forest (also known as Mystical Nativity) was created for Florence’s Medici family and was originally located in the small square apse of the Medici Chapel (or, Magi Chapel) inside the Palazzo Medici in Florence (today known as the Palazzo Medici Riccardi, after it was acquired by the Riccardi family in the 17th century). The Medici family was a wealthy and powerful Florentine family, whose fortune was built on their banking industry. The Medici Bank was initiated in the late 14th century under Giovanni di Bicci de’ Medici, but the family’s economic power ultimately helped them garner increased political power, and they became the rulers of Florence (and later Tuscany) for much of the fifteenth through early eighteenth centuries.
Because it was intended for private devotion in a private chapel, this altarpiece is small in comparison to others of its time. Lippi’s altarpiece was originally situated in the chapel so that the Virgin Mary and the newborn Christ child appeared to be flanked by adoring angels painted in fresco on the side walls of the chapel itself. The painting is no longer in this space for which it was originally made, although a copy now hangs there.
Fra Filippo Lippi (whose name is painted on a piece of wood appearing in the lower left corner of the altarpiece) was a Carmelite monk who was known for his characteristically soft and sweet figures. In the center of the work, the artist shows Mary as the Virgin of Humility type—not enthroned as the Queen of Heaven, but rather seated on the ground. This way of depicting the Virgin Mary was intended to emphasize her human nature, as a woman who was chosen to carry God’s son and would become Queen of Heaven, but who remains caring and humble nonetheless.
The altarpiece depicts both a biblical scene, that of the Nativity, as well as an inspiration to pious prayer. It is meant to encourage viewers to adore and venerate the newly born Christ child. Upon approaching the altar above which this painting was placed, viewers were intended to think about Jesus Christ’s life, religious mission, and crucifixion. Just as the Virgin Mary in the painting gazes lovingly and solemnly at her newborn son, viewers were meant to do the same.
Furthermore, according to Catholic belief, the bread and wine consumed at the altar during the sacrament of Communion at Mass were consecrated by a priest and converted into the body and blood of Christ. The infant Christ’s placement in the center bottom half of the painting would have visually equated the painted image of his body with the Eucharistic Host (bread and wine) placed in front of it during Mass, and more often, with the memory of that Eucharist when a special Mass was not being carried out in the space. This careful composition reminded viewers of Christ’s humanity, his blood that was shed for the salvation of humankind reflected in the wine that was blessed and transformed during Mass. The painting encourages viewers to pray before it and to contemplate the sacrifices that the depicted infant will later make—and especially to remember these sacrifices as they take part in the sacrament of Communion.
Christ’s sacrifice is also symbolically foretold at the far right of the painting, where a pelican reaches down toward its own breast, recalling the popular medieval anecdote of a pelican who was so attentive to her young that she pierced her own side to feed them her blood when no other food was available. Just as God so loved mankind that Christ was sacrificed for humanity’s sins, the mother pelican sacrifices herself to feed her children. At the altar, after the priest carried out the miracle of the Mass, the Medici would in turn drink the blood of Christ (in the form of consecrated wine).
A calculated image for the Medici in a chapel fit for kings
The altarpiece was intended to work in tandem with the decoration of the Medici Chapel where it was placed. The frescoed walls of the chapel show verdant landscapes and lush greenery that evoke a paradisiacal world. The quiet, solemn scene of the Adoration in the Forest is distinctly juxtaposed with the bright and lively processions of the Magi that journey across the chapel’s walls, transporting viewers to a hushed and meditative world. We must also imagine the opulent effects of flickering candlelight, causing the gold leaf incorporated in the walls of the chapel and the gold rays and other dots of gold applied throughout Lippi’s altarpiece to sparkle and glisten.
Lippi removed the usual cast of characters found in Nativity scenes (Joseph, the ox, and the ass) and placed the scene in a dark setting. The artist adds two figures who do not typically appear in paintings of the Nativity: John the Baptist and the old man at prayer behind him. This man is thought to represent the late medieval saint and mystic, Bernard of Clairvaux, a monk who was particularly devoted to the Virgin Mary and who was one of the earliest defenders of the theory of her virginity. The saint’s mystical writings seem to be reflected in the dreamlike setting of the work, as Bernard of Clairvaux almost appears as a vision, faced towards the lush, enchanting forest and utilizing one of the strange, mountainous outcroppings as a prie dieu. In addition to theorizing about the Virgin Mary’s immaculacy, Bernard of Clairvaux also famously wrote against the practice of self-indulgence and preached for faithful followers to abandon their material possessions to the higher love of God. For the wealthy and powerful Medici family, the saint was the exact sort of person with whom they hoped to be compared. Indeed, by commissioning the Medici Chapel and Lippi’s accompanying altarpiece, they were effectively “gifting” this rich, ornate space to the Virgin, Christ, and God. Here on earth, though, this was a space that was inaccessible to everyone but the Medici and those from whom they wanted to gain favor.
Private, at-home chapels like the Medici Chapel were common for the wealthiest families of Renaissance Europe. For centuries after its creation, Fra Filippo Lippi’s altarpiece represented the Medici’s hope for favor from God and would be used in the family’s Christian devotional practices at their home. Kneeling before this altarpiece, many generations of Medici family members prayed in the space of the family’s private chapel and considered themselves as contemporary incarnations of the Magi, the three biblical kings (or wisemen) who visited the newborn Christ child in Bethlehem—the very kings whose long journeys cover the chapel’s walls.
A not-so-subtle reminder of who this space and this altarpiece were really for, all four walls of the small, almost perfectly square, space of the Medici Chapel are frescoed with ornately detailed imagery of the procession of the Magi. However, this procession incorporates much more than the three kings and the goods that they brought to give to the newborn Jesus Christ. The kings are shown accompanied by a massive entourage that stretches across the chapel’s walls and includes numerous recognizable portraits of members of the Medici family and other powerful figures with whom the family hoped to be perpetually connected. This lengthy and opulent procession makes its way across the walls of the chapel toward the Nativity depicted in the altarpiece, reflecting biblical descriptions of the Magi traveling from far and wide to Bethlehem to deliver their expensive gifts to the newly born “King of Kings.”
Passed through many hands
This altarpiece also carries a fascinating, turbulent history. In 1494, the Medici were temporarily exiled from Florence after Piero di Lorenzo de’ Medici (“the Unfortunate”) accepted an unpopular peace treaty with France. The Medici Palace was ransacked and many important artworks, including Lippi’s altarpiece, were seized by the Florentine Republic and moved to their now reestablished seat of government, the Palazzo della Signoria (also known as the Palazzo Vecchio). When the Medici finally returned to Florence and to power two decades later, they moved back into their palace and required their looted art to be returned. The Adoration in the Forest then remained in the family’s possession for the next three centuries.
In the early 19th century, however, during Napoleon’s rule in Italy, the altarpiece was sold and acquired by a wealthy English merchant who settled in Berlin. It there became part of one of the largest private collections in the world, but not for long. During World War II, the coveted altarpiece was confiscated by the Nazi party and hidden in a potassium mine along with other stolen artworks, gold, and jewelry. Lippi’s Adoration in the Forest was part of the Nazi loot famously salvaged by the American and British group known as the Monuments Men in 1945. This fascinating history of its centuries of being stolen, hidden, and sold is a clear reflection of the altarpiece’s mesmerizing power, along with that of the Medici family. The work was eventually returned to Berlin, where it now hangs in the Gemäldegalerie, and a copy resides in its original setting, within Benozzo Gozzoli’s Medici Chapel in the Palazzo Medici Riccardi.
Keith Christiansen, From Filippo Lippi to Piero della Francesca: Fra Carnevale and the Making of a Renaissance Master (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art & New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
Megan Holmes, Fra Filippo Lippi the Carmelite Painter (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999).
Marilyn Aronberg Lavin, “Giovannino Battista: A Study in Renaissance Religious Symbolism,” The Art Bulletin vol. 37, no. 2 (1955), pp. 85–101.
Barnaby Nygren, “Una cosa che non e’: Perspective and Humour in the Paintings of Filippo Lippi,” Oxford Art Journal vol. 29, no. 3 (2006), pp. 319–339.
Curtis Shell, “The Early Style of Fra Filippo Lippi and the Prato Master,” The Art Bulletin vol. 43, no. 3 (1961), pp. 197–209.