Lippi’s Adoration in the Forest (c.1460)
Even though Fra Filippo Lippi's Adoration in the Forest appears to depict the Nativity, it is clearly not a literal translation of the Gospels because it lacks many of the features that viewers then and now expect and adds others. Both Joseph and the animals are missing; there is no sign of a stable or even a cave; God and the Holy Spirit, while no doubt welcome, should not be there and it did not take place in a wood. And then, in the strangest development of all, the earth has cracked open. It is not a Nativity that you, I or the Pope expect. No, it only makes sense within the Inner Tradition influenced, no doubt, by one or more of the many strands of medieval mysticism. Read the Gospels as a mystic would and Christ's life is no longer a sequence of historical events but a path that the individual soul can follow in its attempt to return to God. There is much to say about this picture but here's a start that no art historian has yet imagined.
In a primordial forest aglow with floating images, the ground is rocky and cracked down the middle like our own skulls. Indeed it was through the fontanelle, the opening in an infant skull, that the soul was believed to enter at birth.1 That, I believe, is the scene here: a view inside the skull. That's why it's dark. It depicts that transcendental moment at which the soul is reborn as Christ in the artist's mind. Indeed Lippi himself must have thought: how could I produce such a masterpiece without having cosmic or divine wisdom inside me? Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks (1483-6) is very similar as I have also explained.
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Lippi's compositions are known to deny the viewer the facile perception of one-point perspective.2 Here the figures float in front of a steep, flat landscape (the "flat, upright, wooden painting") while the axe in the lower corner juts out towards us. Signed along its handle, this axe like other weapons in art is a visual metaphor for the artist's own tools. It faces the wrong way because the picture is the mirror-like surface of Lippi's mind. He is "inside" the image facing the glass. That's why the blade is closest to us. Nevertheless, the three-dimensional space where the artist stood and the flat scene "behind him" are one. The studio and the painting have been fused.
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It may be difficult to understand how Lippi could interpret The Nativity as an event in his own psychic life but it was not uncommon. Listen to Meister Eckhart describe the Nativity in the fifteenth century:
"There are two kinds of birth for human kind: one into the world and one out of it, which means to say a spiritual birth into God. Do you wish to know whether your child is being born in you and whether it is present, that is whether you have been changed into God's Son?" [our italics]3
For other iconic examples in which the studio has been fused with the painting itself, see Velazquez's Las Meninas, Goya's 2nd May 1808 and Manet's Le Déjeuner sur l'Herbe and Mlle. V in the Costume of an Espada.
More Works by Lippi
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