A painting has gone on display at the National Gallery that was so controversial when it was bought that the Prime Minister was involved in the fuss. And the topic of this controversial painting — nothing less than the Nativity of Jesus Christ.

The topic of the painting, by the Italian artist Piero della Francesca, wasn’t the problem, but the condition of it was and even the suspicion that the National Gallery had just paid a lot of money for a painting that wasn’t even finished.

Even the Prime Minister at the time the gallery bought the painting, Benjamin Disraeli had to defend their decision, as it was paid for from taxpayers funds.

Piero della Francesca was a 15th-century artist and mathematician born to a wealthy family, and made his name as an artist of mainly religious paintings for churches and the state. His Nativity though was probably for private viewing, as documents show it being on display in the family house until it was sold in 1825 to a collector, and then bought by the National Gallery in 1874.

The controversy was the condition of the painting, which had been sold in pieces and then stuck back together, but mainly that it was considered to be unfinished. That suspicion was only corrected in the 1980s when archival documents were found that reasonably prove it was a finished painting, but that the appaling condition it’s in was due to very bad efforts at restoring it in the past.

However, over the past three years, there’s been a project to restore the painting back to something closer to what it might have looked like originally, although some of the damage done in the past and the natural progression of the years can’t be undone.

What’s shown is the Nativity, as if it had taken place in Piero’s time and location and is based on the then very popular St Bridget vision of the nativity, with the stable/shed in the background while Mary prays and angels sing. Two shepherds and Joseph are pushed to the background, while the holy people are in the foreground. This difference between mortal and holy is accentuated in the clothes and appearance. The mortals are sunburnt and drab, while the holy people have pale skin and wear grand clothing.

Jesus initially seems to be on a cushion, but look carefully and you’ll spy he’s laying part of Mary’s cloak instead.

One of the mysteries of the painting is in the foreground which shows a plain surface with dark mottling. In fact, it’s a common Tuscan landscape, with sandy soil that has plants growing, and the plain areas are paths, to the stable and down the hill. Originally the dark plants were green, but the paint has darkened with age, and short of painting over with green paint, that can’t be undone.

Comparing the before and after, the most dramatically obvious change is in the shepherds, whose faces had been so badly restored in the past as to remind you of the famously botched 2012 restoration of Martínez’s Ecce Homo. The restoration took a mix of the paint fragments that clung onto the panels and x-rays which revealed the line drawing underneath the paint of how Piero wanted them to look.

The restoration has also revealed a patch of sunlight on the wall of the stable shed, and with the shepherd pointing to a hole in the stable roof, it’s interpreted as the holy light from God, a typical motif of the time. The slightly dream-like quality of the lighting is a more subtle nod to the light that comes from Jesus, which is usually shown to a more blatant effect in paintings of the time.

A few things stand out, such as the transparent leg on the donkey, a legacy of how badly a previous restoration stripped layers of paint away, and do look at the right shepherd, who has a look on his face of wishing the angels would please shut up.

The gilt frame that the painting had been shown in before the restoration has been replaced with a 15th-century frame closer in appearance to how it would have been shown when in Piero’s home.

Jill Dunkerton, Senior Restorer, says, “Spending the last three years with this much-loved painting has been a real privilege but also a great responsibility. Every decision, every tiny brush stroke of retouching, affects our perception of its appearance and meaning, possibly for many generations. I hope that visitors will now be able to experience its quiet magic without the distraction of the past damage.”

The restoration is just in time for the painting’s 150th anniversary in the National Gallery collection, in 2024, and the painting is now on display on its own in a small chapel like space in the National Gallery, look for Room 14A, and is free to visit.


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