5 famous Christmas story paintings we love for their colours

From Breugel bringing scenes of Bethlehem to his native snow-covered Belgium, to Barocci’s rendering of Mary in rich pink and yellow, these five famous works of art about the Christmas story are striking for their colour palettes.

The Nativity, Frederico Barocci, 1576


The Nativity, Frederico Barocci, Museo del Prado, Madrid

Barocci followed the Venetian use of colour – a process of layering and blending colour – to create his Nativity scene, a tender depiction of Mary overlooking her baby, her robes in pink and yellow standing out from the otherwise darkened scene.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Guido Reni, 1575 – 1642

Guido Reni, 1575 - 1642 The Adoration of the Shepherds about 1640 Oil on canvas, 480 x 321 cm Bought, 1957 NG6270 http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG6270

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Guido Reni, 1575 – 1642 National Gallery, London

From the same period, The Adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni places angels high up in the painting to balance the composition –  they reflect back the light coming from the newborn Christ, but the eye tends towards Mary and Joseph, the blues, orange and pink of their clothes far more vibrant than those of the onlookers.

The Annunciation, Botticelli, 1489


Botticelli The Annunciation (1489), Wikimedia Commons

Florentine colour tended to be richer and more vivid than the palette favoured by Venetian painters and this can be seen in Renaissance master Sandro Botticelli’s work, The Annunciation. He was commissioned by The Chapel of the Florentine monastery Cestello to paint this depiction of the archangel Gabriel visiting the Virgin Mary to deliver the news that she will give birth to the son of God.

Mary and Joseph on the Way to Bethlehem, Hugo van der Goes, 1475


Mary and Joseph on the Way to Bethlehem (1475), Hugo van der Goes, Galleria Uffizi, Florence, Italy

From a similar time as Botticelli’s work, Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes’ painting of Mary and Joseph on the way to Bethlehem is earthier and focuses on the weary couple as they journey through rocky terrain. Rich browns and washed out blues set a sombre tonal atmosphere though the black figures at the centre of the painting coupled with a jolt of vivid red from the cloak on the donkey, give the palette an enjoyable twist.

The Census at Bethlehem, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566

The Census at Bethlehem, 1566, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Wikimedia Commons

The Census at Bethlehem, 1566, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Wikimedia Commons

Another Flemish take on events – darker muted shades of brown, black, greens and blues tussle with the bright snow in Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s version of Mary and Joseph on their way to be registered in a census. Bruegel often depicted biblical events in his own locale and in a more contemporary way – in this case, a very snowy Flanders provides the backdrop for the story, allowing for a totally different palette than what might have been used had he stayed true to story’s Middle Eastern setting. The donkey is the only feature to mark out Mary and Joseph from the rest of the peasants navigating the freezing conditions.

Jill Macnair


Jill Macnair has worked as an interiors journalist for 13 years, contributing to titles including Elle Decoration, The Sunday Times and The Guardian. She set up cult interiors blog My Friend’s House in 2009 with Ros Anderson and continues to run the forum daily.

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