Birth of the Virgin

Oil on panel

65 x 47 cm

Catalonia, c. 1530-1550

Provenance: Barcelona, private collection

This panel depicts the Birth of the Virgin following a compositional model with roots stretching back to the Gothic period. St. Anne, who is pictured with a gold nimbus with punch-marked decoration, is seen lying back in a bed with an imposing fabric canopy over it. Meanwhile, her midwife is serving her a plate of food while delicately drawing back the side curtain of the canopy. The bed is arranged on a diagonal axis to the pictorial plane, creating an effect of great depth which seeks to contextualise the action in a more or less credible three-dimensional space. Joachim, with turban and polygonal gold nimbus identifying him as an Old Law figure, is sat next to his wife in a simple armchair with a high back. Just above him we see the oculus that illuminates the room. At the foot of the bed there is a second midwife, arranged in profile and with a slim figure, who is carrying the newly-born baby’s bed clothes and crib under her arm, while the infant Virgin is being looked after by two more midwifes. The older of the two, her sleeves rolled up and wearing a white cap, is holding Mary’s naked body and preparing to wash her in a sort of umbrella vault-shaped tub. The Child, with a sinewy and rather unfeminine body, is wearing a round gold punch-marked nimbus and is caught in the act of turning her head towards the old midwife. Meanwhile, the younger midwife is pouring water from a big jug onto a white cloth with elegant folds that she is holding in her hands.

The attribution of this panel to the pair of painters Miquel Ramells and Guiot Borgonyó is more than evident. The characteristic expressionist style of the works formerly grouped together under the figure of the Master of Canillo, now identified as being Ramells and Borgonyó, can be observed in numerous features and characteristics of the Birth of the Virgin. In the first place, we see that the way the space has been depicted and the search for three-dimensionality matches what we find in other works undertaken by the duo. This is the case of the disappeared Caldes de Malavella altarpiece where, in the Assumption of the Virgin, the tomb was executed by tracing out a profound diagonal axis as seen in the bed from our panel. Equally, the Adoration of the Child was undertaken in accordance with analogous parameters[1]. We can observe something similar in the Healing of Aquilinus from the Sant Miquel de Prats altarpiece, where the bed has a canopy topped with curved shapes similar to those seen here[2].

The same characters, human models and physiognomic types reappear time and time again in the works of Ramells and Borgonyó. As such, the profile face of the servant carrying the crib in the Birth of the Virgin is incredibly close to that of Mary Magdalene from the Lamentation over the Dead Christ from the altarpiece in Sant Miquel de Prats, where we find two Old Law figures with turbans and beards that are reminiscent of our Joachim[3]. In addition, the face of the old midwife who is bathing the Child reminds one of Mary in the Nativity of unknown provenance purchased in 2011 by the Government of Andorra (along with an Epiphany, both belonging to the Galería Bernat), where we also see that Jesus is depicted with the same round and sinewy anatomy as our infant Virgin.[4]. St. Anne’s face, meanwhile, is not so far removed from Mary’s in the Flight to Egypt from the Caldes de Malavella altarpiece[5]. As regards the water jug, it resembles the one held by a servant in the scene depicting Jesus before Pilate from the Sant Miquel de Prats altarpiece[6].

The skills of our two painters can be observed in the finer details, such as the delicate transparent ruffs worn by three of the midwives, or in the rounded muscles of the infant Mary’s body and the arm of the woman holding her during her bath. The same delicacy may be seen in the gesture of the midwife drawing apart the side curtain of the bed canopy, or in the way Joachim is resting his hands on his wife’s pillow. Their abilities are also evident in the masterly way the interplay between light and shadow is executed, as we note in the figure of the young midwife in the foreground.

Nothing is known of the provenance of the panel we are studying here, which may have originated from any of the areas in which the two painters worked. In around 1537 they undertook two sets of works in the Andorra region, the aforementioned Sant Miquel de Prats altarpiece, now broken up, and the one in Sant Joan de Caselles, still in situ[7]. In the Catalan region they painted the aforementioned Caldes de Malavella altarpiece in La Selva area (Girona), while the one from Santa Margarita de Lascuarre (Huesca)[8], which disappeared in 1936, in the border area between Catalonia and Aragon, has also been attributed to them. There are documentary records of their activities in the Vic area (the towns of Sobremunt, Sant Martí Sescorts and Sant Boi de Lluçanés), as well as in Central Catalonia (Cardona and Valldeperes). All of this means an extremely extensive working area, added to Ramells being recorded as living in Cardona, and both painters residing in Bagà[9].

Not many of their decontextualized works have survived, beyond an altarpiece compartment depicting St. Sylvester and the Dragon (Madrid, private collection) and a Beheading of St. John (private collection)[10]. To these we should add the aforementioned Nativity and Epiphany the Galería Bernat sold to the Andorran government in 2011, which in their iconography and measurements (65 x 52.5 cm and 64.7 x 53.1 cm, respectively) may have come from the same ensemble as the Birth of the Virgin.





[1] See details from both scenes in José 2007, p. 56.

[2] A detail in Alcobé 2007, p. 29.

[3] José 2007, p. 63 and 65; Bosch-Miralpeix 2017, p. 113, fig. 110.

[4] Bosch-Miralpeix 2017, p. 112, fig. 104.

[5] José 2007, p. 56.

[6] José 2007, p. 67.

[7] For more on both works, see Bosch-Miralpeix 2017, pp. 107-121.

[8] José 2007, p. 52.

[9] Bosch-Miralpeix 2017, pp. 367-368.

[10] José 2007, p. 58.