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Saturday morning quotes 6.32: Puer natus est

December 24, 2016

piero-nativityThis Christmas Eve we offer a dual discussion: first a brief mention of a 15th-century painting of the Nativity, and secondly a synopsis of a miniature musical masterpiece by Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500 – 1553).

The painting is a depiction of the Nativity by Piero della Francesca, painted circa 1475 and now in The National Gallery, London. Piero della Francesca (c. 1415 – 1492) was a true renaissance man – an artist, mathematician and prolific writer on the subjects of perspective and geometry in painting.  In De Prospectiva Pingendi, Piero outlines a number of perspective reduction problems, offering clear examples and solutions.

While most 21st-century types are capable of recognizing the obvious skill that went into a painting in the age of Leonardo da Vinci, it’s difficult to grasp the meticulously planned proportion and the layers of symbolism in a painting such as Piero’s Nativity.  An extremely enlightening discussion on mathematical principles and geometric proportion in Piero’s art by Paul Calter of Dartmouth College is quoted below:

Proportion and the Rule of Three:

One important subject was how to solve proportions, crucial to a merchant who had to deal with problems of pasturage, brokerage, discount, tare allowance, adulteration of commodities, barter, and currency exchange. Not only did every city have its own currency, but its own weights and measures!

The universal mathematical tool of literate commercial people in the Renaissance was the Rule of Three, also called the Golden Rule and the Merchant’s Key. In his Del abaco, Piero explains how to use the rule of three to solve a proportion:

“multiply the thing one wants to know about
by the thing that is dissimilar to it,
and divide by the remaining thing.
The result is dissimilar to the thing we want to know about.”

Example:  If seven bracci (1/3 person’s height or about 23″) of cloth are worth nine lire; how much will five bracci of cloth be worth?


The thing we want to know about is:        5 bracci of cloth.
The thing dissimilar to it is:                9 lire
The remaining thing is:                    7 bracci of cloth.
So: (5 bracci) x (9 lire) / (7 bracci) = 6 3/7 lire

The units are lire, because lire are dissimilar to bracci, the units in the thing we wanted to know about.

If the reader follows the link to Piero’s circa 1475 Nativity, close examination of the angelic lutes reveals a few interesting details.  First, the perspective is beautifully accurate right down to the angles of the interesting lute roses.  Next, a look at the angel’s right hand disposition reveals that the one on the left may or may not have been holding a plectrum, while the angel on the right is clearly playing polyphony with the fingertips of the right hand.  Unfortunately, the finer detail—like the strings—is absent or indistinct, likely due to an overzealous cleaning or “restoration”.

The Nativity motet Puer natus est nobis by Cristóbal de Morales (c. 1500 – 1553), found on our new recording Magnum Mysterium, represents a miniature masterpiece of textual and musical proportion and symbolism, with perhaps as much complexity and layers of meaning as a painting by Piero.  Morales highlights the number “3”, with the motet composed for three voices setting a text derived from three sources.  The text of the Gregorian chant is:puernatusestchant3

Puer natus est nobis
et filius datus est nobis:
cujus imperium super humerum ejus:
et vocabitur nomen ejus,
magni consilii Angelus.

A boy is born to us,
and a son is given:
whose government is upon his shoulder:
and his name shall be called:
the Angel of great council.

The text is from Isaiah 9:6, and the chant is the Introit 7 Ad Tertiam Missam In Navitate Domini (the Introit for the 3rd Mass of Christmas Day), which may seem slightly familiar as the text to the well-known chorus “For unto us a child is born” to those stalwart fans of Handel’s Messiah.  But Morales adapted the text as follows:

Puer natus est nobis
et filius datus est nobis:
Gloria in excelsis Deo,
et in terra pax hominibus
bonæ voluntatis,
Verbum caro factum est,
et habitavit in nobis.

A boy is born to us,
and a son is given:
Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace
to men of good will,
The Word was made flesh
and dwelt among us.

As we can see, Morales’ text departs from the text of the chant after the first two lines, adding the beginning of the greater doxology, or the beginning of the Gloria section of the Mass ordinary, derived from Luke 2:14.  Next, Morales added the text, “Verbum caro factum est”, from John 1:14.  In our recording, we preface Morales’ three-voice motet with the first two lines of the chant melody.  Since the instrumental part covers only two voices, the transcription is notated on a single treble-octave staff with upward stems indicating the alto and downward stems indicating the bass.  As a Christmas gift to our readers, we offer our transcription of Morales’ “Puer natus est nobis”, or a version with accompaniment in lute notation.

Happy Christmas from Mignarda.

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