The painting that inspired
Bradbury Thompson’s 1982 traditional Christmas stamp design has been an intriguing puzzle for art historians. There are two versions of the painting in the collection of the National Gallery. The differences between the paintings appear slight at first glance, but are actually quite significant. The painting which was used for the stamp was a gift to the National Gallery’s collection in 1943 from Samuel H. Kress. The left and right edges of the painting were cropped to make a narrower image for the stamp, but no important details were excluded. In this painting, Mary cradles Jesus with both hands, and he holds her mantle in one hand and a goldfinch, symbolizing his coming death, in the other hand. Though the painting is depicted on the stamp with the words “Tiepolo: National Gallery of Art” beneath it, its attribution to painter Giovanni Battista Tiepolo has been doubted by some, who believe it to be a painting by an assistant or the painter’s son (De Grazia 1996).
However, the other version of the painting, which became part of the National Gallery collection in 1997, has always been accepted as a painting by Tiepolo himself. In this painting, Mary seems to tilt her head down a bit more, and her cloak is closed by a strip of fabric across her chest. In what is considered the “primary” version of the painting, Mary holds Jesus with only her left hand, and he holds a string attached to the goldfinch’s foot rather than his mother’s mantle. Writing for the National Gallery, Diane De Grazia argues that the version of the painting originally in the National Gallery (the one depicted on the stamp) is possibly a version painted by Tiepolo for a client who wanted a composition similar to the primary version.