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December 25, 2011

The Adoration of the Christ Child


Last night I had the fortune of watching BBC’s 50 minute HD programmed called “The Adoration of the Christ Child.” This documentary is based on the painting by Carmelite Friar Filippo Lippi called “Adoration in the Forest“, which was completed in 1459. I had no previous knowledge of this renaissance master painter from Florence and as it turns out his body of work influenced such famous painters as Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and Botticelli among many others.

Currently, this magnificent painting is on permanent display at the Berlin Museum which you can watch right from your computer, thanks to the Google Arts Project. Go ahead and take a stroll through some of the most important museums in the world. But if you want to go straight to this painting then you can find it via this link. There is also a short YouTube video (1:49) at the bottom of this post.

Our story begins with Cosimo de’ Medici, a wealthy banker from the powerful political and banking House of Medici, which ruled Florence for many years.

Cosimo made his money through banking, i.e. through interest on loans which could possibly have been excessive; thus frown upon by the church as usury. It appears that he also led a less than straight personal life. But he was a believer and wanted to somehow atone for his sins so that he would not be condemned to eternal damnation. So he commissioned the construction of the first private chapel. This was to be an imposing house of adoration. All the walls had fresco’s, as did the ceiling. For the center piece on the wall behind the altar there would be a painting, which he commissioned to Friar Lippi.

Friar Lippi lost his parents and at the early age of eight; thus, he was turned into the community of the Carmelites friars. And I say turned in because this was not by personal choice. He learned his trade there and since he had the talent for it, he became a master.

The documentary talks about his personal life. It seems he had several entangled love affairs. While working for the convent chapel of S. Margherita of Prato, he met Lucrezia Buti who was, according to Wikipedia, possibly under the tutelage of the nuns. They elope and soon she bore him a son, Filippino Lippi who also became a famous painter. He had a lifelong relationship with her, but he never did marry her. He was fifty years at the time and she was only twenty. It was during this scandal that Cosimo help smooth things over and Lippi began work in earnest.

At first glance the painting seems like a simple adoration. However, the documentary starts unraveling not only the complexity of its actual creation but more importantly its theological context. I must say that I was in awe. It is a truly moving working of art. I cannot go into all the details from memory, but one of the most salient points is that this painting has been copied many, many times, since. It is even referenced in a computer video game.

Cosimo de Medici

The history of how it got to be where it is now is quite amazing as well. The Medici’s where kicked out of Florence so the painting was moved to a church as part of the new republic. When the Medici’s came back to Florence they took possession and placed it back to its original place. Later on during Napoleon’s reign they sold it to a wealthy British business man who was based out of Berlin. He had a collection of more than 3,000 paintings. Because of a naval blockade, this business man was force to sell the collection to the Prussian government for a huge sum of money. When WWII came the Germans had all the works stored in a fortress that could withstand any Allied bombings. But finally the Fuehrer himself signed the order to move the paintings away from Berlin to a small town into a potassium mine.

When the American army found them, it was ordered to be sent to the United States as war reparations; or you could call it looting. It seems the officers opposed the move although in the end they obeyed the orders to ship them out, under pressure of court martial. The American people got wind of this and there was uproar. Finally it was agreed that the paintings would be returned to Germany but first they had a tour through major cities in the US where twelve million people saw the paintings, including “The Adoration in the Forest.”

Lastly, kudos to the BBC and if you have the opportunity, watch the documentary… it’s truly worth it.

Adoration of the Christ Child by Filippo Lippi


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