Part of a series in Padua's Scrovegni Chapel, and his first mature work, the cycle is considered to be one of the greatest achievements in Western art. The frescoes fill the chapel, forming a narrative. The series was commissioned around 1305 by his patron Enrico degli Scrovegni, to serve as a place of worship and a final resting place for the family, although it wasn't their parish church. It may also have been an act of atonement for Enrico, who was a moneylender or usurer, with a father who featured in Dante's Seventh Circle of Hell. The chapel and monastery are now part of the city's museum.
Nativity was part of Giotto's most influential work, as he started to develop beyond stylised Byzantine formality. He was beginning to produce more natural and realistic paintings, with folds of flowing robes, three-dimensional shapes, and figures that faced away from the viewer to create more space. He wanted his subjects to have movement and life, so that onlookers felt a connection and involvement with what they were looking at.
Giotto also altered the traditional group of animals in this Nativity, adding an ox and an ass, with the former perhaps representing the New Testament, while the ass might signify the Old Testament. It could also be said to represent a contrast between those who stuck to the old beliefs, and those who embraced the changes that came with Christ and Christianity.
Giotto's treatment of this event as a drama between mother and baby is another innovation, where emotion is conveyed, unlike in the more formal Byzantine paintings that Giotto was familiar with. It's possible here to discern a sadness in Mary when she gazes at Jesus, as if aware that she will lose him one day. In Byzantine art, the birth of Christ traditionally took place in a cave, but Giotto places his Nativity in a shed, with livestock that eat, breathe and move like real farm animals that have wandered in for warmth and food.
Giotto di Bodone may or may not have been born a Florentine, but some reports claim that he was discovered by the artist Cimabue while working in the Tuscan countryside, and taken to Florence as an apprentice. In any case, whether the young, untrained painter was formally or informally schooled in the Byzantine style, he produced sublime art in that tradition.
However, when he moved beyond that to experiment with a completely new way of portraying people and events, it changed the way in which painters viewed and interpreted subjects forever. This revolutionary approach continued its influence into the period of the Renaissance, and to other great artists such as Raphael, Michelangelo and Masaccio, reaching down the centuries to today. Giotto's Nativity and the rest of his frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel started art lovers on that journey.