Martin Gayford

On the trail of one of the first artists to paint ordinary things

Who was the mysterious Master of Flémalle? Martin Gayford tries to track down the man behind an amazing Nativity

Everyday miracle: ‘Nativity’, c.1420s, by the Master of Flémalle. Credit: Bridgeman Images

There are many marvellous things to be seen in the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Dijon. But when I paid a visit a couple of years ago (in those days you could just step on a train and do such things), it was a little picture of the Nativity that particularly caught my eye. Its date, artist and original owner are all uncertain, but its beauty and originality were clear at a glance. Here, for almost the first time in European art, the appearance of ordinary things and people were the subject of close, rapt observation.

Not of course that there was anything ordinary about the Nativity itself, which was a miraculous, world-changing event — signalled in the painting by the bright golden sun rising over distant jagged hills. This marvel involved both worldly and supernatural elements so, accordingly, the image was painted with different levels of verisimilitude.

The fluttering angels are not naturalistic at all, appropriately since they are spiritual beings. The holy family are more so, while the three shepherds peering through a window in the stable wall could be portraits of real 15th-century farmhands — especially the one on the left who is holding the bag-pipe.

Even more amazingly convincing is the landscape behind: a stretch of medieval Europe in which you can go for a virtual walk, back down the road the holy family must have taken, past the pollarded trees, across the bridge into the little walled town of Bethlehem, over the pass beyond, on and on.

This snippet of information brought out the Hercule Poirot in me

That vista, in movie terms, is a long-shot, but there are also astonishing close-ups. The wattle and daub of the stable has flaked away to reveal a snugly curled-up cow. What really struck me, though, was the post holding up the nearside of the structure.

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