Offering Incense » The Nativity

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The Nativity

Workshop of Rogier van der Weyden (Netherlandish, 1399/1400–1464)
The Nativity, mid–15th century
Made in Brussels, Belgium
South Netherlandish
Tempera and oil; Central Panel: 55 1/8 x 76 1/8 in. (140 x 193.4 cm) Upper Wings: 17 15/16 x 7 7/8 in. (45.6 x 20 cm) Lower Wings: 33 5/8 x 16 5/8 in. (85.4 x 42.2 cm)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Cloisters Collection, 1949 (49.109)

The panel to the left of the central panel, which depicts the Nativity itself, shows the Emperor Augustus genuflecting and swinging a gilt censer toward an apparition of the Virgin and Child appearing in the sky outside the imperial palace. The birth of the Christ has been revealed to the emperor by the Tiburtine Sibyl, who stands behind him. In the Middle Ages, it was believed that the Sibyl’s revelation to Augustus and the Annunciation to the Magi, represented in a panel to the right of the Nativity, occurred simultaneously at the moment of Christ’s birth. The offering of incense was an ancient religious practice common to both the Greco-Roman and Jewish traditions, and was employed throughout the Middle Ages, as it is today.

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