Don Silvestro dei Gherarducci, Initial G with the Birth of the Virgin

Florence, Circa 1375
Tempera, gold, and ink on parchment
Metropolitan Museum of Art, 21.163

The title of this work is supplied by the Metropolitan Museum itself, and they ought to know. However, calling this the birth of Mary renders the haloed figure with the blue mantle somewhat problematic. That person does not seem to be one of the midwives, as she stands apart from them. And a bystander with a halo would be unprecedented, as far as I know, in any other Birth of Mary image. So it is possible that she is the Virgin Mary herself, and that this image actually represents the birth of John the Baptist.

Luke 1:36 and 1:56 state that Mary visited Elizabeth when the latter was six months pregnant with John and that she stayed with her for three months. The Golden Legend draws the obvious conclusion that she "did the office and service to receive St. John Baptist when he was born." In the panel with John's birth in the Salimbenis' fresco cycle, Elizabeth passes the baby to a woman who wears the same white robe and blue mantle as we see in the Gherarducci image. That woman is unquestionably Mary, the same person whom Elizabeth greets in the previous panel, the Visitation. In another painting identifiable as the birth of John the Baptist, Mary wears a blue mantle over a red robe and white undertunic and is engaged only in holding the baby; the washing and nursing is handled by midwives.

The Golden Legend also says Elizabeth and Mary were "cousins german" because Elizabeth's mother Esmeria was sister to Mary's mother Anne. If Elizabeth is indeed the mother shown here, then her mother Esmeria could be the woman in the blue mantle standing in the background. On the other hand, if this is a Birth of Mary image, there is no telling who that woman would be.

Whichever the case, images of John's and Mary's births do resemble each other in being set in well-appointed private homes where the newborn is washed by midwives. This distinguishes them from images of the birth of Jesus in a cave or manger attended only by his parents and the shepherds. In the West midwives were excluded from Nativity scenes, owing to the belief that Jesus was born clean.

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Read more about images of the births of John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and Jesus

Photographed at the museum by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.