The Birth of the Virgin is apparently a lateral panel from a highly original altarpiece commissioned in 1467 for the church of Santa Maria della Bella at Urbino. 
A companion panel, "The Presentation of the Virgin," is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. The two panels captured the public's imagination when they were lent by Prince Barberini to the magnificent "Exhibition of Italian Art," held in the galleries of the Royal Academy in London in 1930. There is nothing like a mystery to add allure to an object, and the fact that it was not possible to establish with certainty either the author .or the subjects added to the enigma of these marvelous paintings.
The infant Virgin being bathed by midwives has the character of a genre scene and is embroidered with engaging details from everyday life. The imposing building, decorated with reliefs derived from Roman sculpture, reflects the architecture of the celebrated ducal palace at Urbino. After his training in Florence under Filippo Lippi, Fra Carnevale returned to his native Urbino, where he would have seen works by Piero della Francesca and may have known the great architect-theorist Leon Battista Alberti.
'Seventy years have passed since, by royal decree on April 26, 1934, the entail (or fidecommesso) on the Barberini Collection was canceled and the possibility of foreign sale granted to the heirs, thereby effectively assuring the dispersal of what had been one of the greatest private collections in Rome, largely formed under the pontificate of Urban VIII Barberini (r. 1623–44). In addition to the masterpieces by Dürer, Caravaggio, Guido Reni, Guercino, and Poussin that would eventually be sold, there were two intriguing fifteenth-century panels of uncertain attribution. They seemed to depict scenes from the life of the Virgin, but in such a peculiarly secular fashion and with such a profusion of architectural detail that their subjects were not obvious. They had begun to attract scholarly attention when, in 1893, Adolfo Venturi had identified their author with the quasi-mythical Urbino painter Bartolomeo di Giovanni Corradini, known as Fra Carnevale, whose works had, according to Vasari, influenced the young Bramante.'
'The two panels captured the public's imagination when they were lent by Prince Barberini to the magnificent "Exhibition of Italian Art," held in the galleries of the Royal Academy in London in 1930. There is nothing like a mystery to add allure to an object, and the fact that it was not possible to establish with certainty either the author or the subjects added to the enigma of these marvelous paintings.'
Newly discovered documents demonstrate that these two panels are probably from Fra Carnevale's most celebrated work, an altarpiece for the oratory of Santa Maria della Bella in Urbino, for which he was paid in 1466. The oratory was attached to a hospital, which may explain the genrelike approach to narration. The emphasis on architecture — clearly inspired by Leon Battista Alberti's architectural treatise — and the oblique treatment of the ostensible subject matter have been the source of discussion for more than a century. In no comparable Renaissance paintings have the religious themes been used as a point of departure for the study of architecture and the suggestion of everyday life (note the beggars in one of the pictures). The paintings originally had frames with a row of arches along the upper edges; these shapes have been painted out but are still visible.
With these works Fra Carnevale established himself as a learned architect and an artist of ingenuity and fantasy (the critical terms of the day would have been ingenio, fantasia, and artificioso).
What do we know about the church of Santa Maria della Bella? In 1565 the hospital buildings—including the small church of Santa Maria della Bella—were assigned to the nuns of the Convertite del Gesù, and it is possible that works of art were shifted about within the new convent [see Franco Mazzini, "Urbino, i mattoni e le pietre," Pesaro, 1999, pp. 421–22], confusing their original function. However, apart from Claudio Ridolfi's replacement altarpiece, the only other work certainly from the church (which had three altars) is a fresco of the Crucifixion painted by the late-Gothic Ferrarese artist Antonio Alberti in 1442 (Gallerie Nazionale, Urbino). What deserves consideration is the probability that the secular slant in the paintings is related to their setting in a confraternity oratory.
Crucial to the identification of the subject of the Metropolitan painting is the woman reclining in a bed and the child standing in a washbasin, both of whom have haloes. (The haloes, done in shell gold, were examined by conservators in 1994 and again in 2004 and there seems no reason to question their authenticity since: 1) where, in the case of the woman in bed, the halo has been partially cleaned off, it has left an impression due to its age; 2) in both cases the haloes are executed in small, hatched strokes, completely in keeping with the painting technique of the artist; and 3) had they been added at a later date, in an effort to clarify the subject, we would expect them to be larger and more conspicuous.) They are notably discreet, but so, for that matter, is the one in Piero della Francesca's "Flagellation", which also has a provenance from Urbino. The second point is that the infant in the New York picture is evidently a girl. Admittedly, the matter is not absolutely certain: in the infant's groin there is a small damage with an adjacent brush stroke that at first glance might suggest a penis. However, in the reliefs that decorate the palace the artist is quite explicit about genitalia, and the child's is closer to that of the nereid on the back of a sea centaur. It may seem remarkably indecorous to show the naked baby Virgin standing in a basin frontally, but Bicci di Lorenzo does precisely this in a predella scene of the birth of the Virgin in an altarpiece in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore.
No less notable is that the mother of the child—remarkably young for Saint Anne—is shown lying in bed nude. Virtually every fifteenth-century scene of the birth of the Virgin shows Anne reclining in bed, decorously dressed to receive visitors. Fra Carnevale's departure from this convention would be inexplicable were it not that the three maids attending her—unlike the woman sitting by her—are clothed "all'antica". In other words, the birth has been imagined as a past event refracted through the ceremonies of contemporary life. This was not an uncommon practice: it is also true of Ghiberti's "Gates of Paradise", in which, in the story of Jacob and Esau, only the two youths are shown wearing contemporary clothes. The New York panel nonetheless remains unique for associating the haloed mother with a classical past rather than a fifteenth-century present. In sum, it would seem that the Metropolitan painting does, indeed, show a religious scene involving the birth of a girl, with well-wishers ceremoniously greeting each other in the foreground and men in the portico and background chatting, riding, or bringing home game. It is perhaps an indication of the religious theme that two of the women in the foreground hold prayer beads.
If Fra Carnevale's approach to the subject of the New York panel may be described as oblique, in the Boston picture it is almost inscrutable. Despite the absence of any haloes, the picture is most often described as showing the Presentation of the Virgin in the Temple, which, according the "Golden Legend", took place when Mary was three years old. A good deal of license can be found in representations of the scene in the fifteenth century, but they all include Joachim, the Virgin's father, who is nowhere in sight in Fra Carnevale's painting. Moreover, instead of the traditional Jewish priest shown officiating at this event, Fra Carnevale shows three figures gathered at the high altar—apparently a Franciscan, possibly a Dominican or a friar wearing priestly robes, and a hooded figure—while two pilgrims are shown against the right-hand entrance pier. (Is one of these supposed to be Joachim or Joseph?) The remaining figures in the church are exclusively young males who chat, rest, or walk about. Two wear festive wreaths in their hair (one composed of roses, the other of leaves), while the coif of the young girl in blue is adorned with roses and a stem of rose leaves or myrtle. Kanter [Ref. 1994] reasonably suggested that the scene may show the marriage of the fourteen-year-old Virgin, imagined as an actual, fifteenth-century ceremony, with the prospective bride on her way to church, accompanied by her female relatives and two male guardians (once again, one of the women holds prayer beads). It is far easier to point out the anomalies in the depiction of this scene than it is to suggest an alternative subject. For this reason it is important to point out that the decorative reliefs on the church façade clearly depict events in the Virgin's life—the Annunciation and the Visitation—and that the three marble steps the young girl is about to climb are shown with fissures, as though to denote the passage from one age to another. Typically, this would be the transition from the era under the Law to that of Grace, but there is also the suggestion of the passage from a pagan past, symbolized by the dancing maenad and piping satyr on the bases of the columns and the classical urn with a branch protruding from its opening, to the Christian era, announced by the reliefs above the arches. There would thus seem to be no way around the religious content of both pictures, and the most probable identifications remain the Birth of the Virgin and the Presentation in the Temple or the Marriage of the Virgin.
There is no basis for conjecturing that the pictures formed part of a larger series or cycle. Not only are the two panels the same size (neither has been cut down), but the scenes are constructed on a precisely mirror-image perspective grid, with the vanishing point located along the left edge of the New York panel and the right edge of the Boston panel, 62 centimeters from the bottom. In both, three stairs divide a foreground space from an interior one, viewed through a large, classical arch. The perspective must have been worked out on a separate piece of paper so that the results could be transferred to both panels by simply flipping the cartoon. The perspective grid was elaborated in greater detail in the New York panel—the incisions are clearly visible in the left background, where a mathematically determined diminution of the figures was wanted—but in both, pinpricks along the vertical edges indicating the transversals were carefully transposed [see Additional Views]. This sort of mirror-image type of construction would have made no sense if extended to further narrative panels, and it really only leaves open the possibility of a missing center element with a centralized perspective scheme.
At the top of both panels are incisions marking off three arcs; in the Metropolitan panel these arcs are cusped. The frame thus had a Gothic profile, with small arches supported on consoles. This type of frame is found in numerous Marchigian altarpieces. The difference here is that they are aligned horizontally, as in an altarpiece by Paolo da Viso (Pinacoteca Civica, Ascoli Piceno). The type of frame indicated could have extended over a center panel or a niche containing a sculpture.
As has long been acknowledged, architecture is the real protagonist of the compositions. In the New York panel the setting is a grand, secular palace bearing affinities with the Ducal Palace of Urbino. The character of the two ex-Barberini panels can, indeed, only be explained by the culture of the court of Urbino: of Federigo da Montefeltro, whose keen interest in architecture as well as in perspective is well known, and of his counselor-relative Ottaviano Ubaldini, who Giovanni Santi (Raphael's father) says painters and sculptors looked upon as a father. (Documents actually place Fra Carnevale in close touch with Ottaviano.) It is in this regard that the similarities of certain details in the panels with decorative elements in the palace become significant. The Montefeltro eagle that decorates the right hand spandrel of the palace in the New York panel is as though copied from the coat of arms above the fireplace of the Sala della Jole. The pseudo-antique reliefs bear a close, stylistic affinity with the bacchic frieze on that same fireplace, while the dolphin capitals of the column within the palace in the New York panel bear a striking similarity to those framing the main door into the Sala della Jole.
Fra Carnevale's name occurs in a sixteenth-century list of engineers who had been employed on the Ducal Palace, along with Luciano Laurana and Francesco di Giorgio, and it has been forcefully argued that prior to 1468 and the appointment of Laurana as chief architect, the Dominican painter had a hand in the planning of the Sala della Jole [see Refs. Strauss 1979, pp. 136–41; and Borsi 1997, pp. 60–62). That he did architectural designs has received confirmation from a document of 1455 in which he is mentioned as the author of designs for capitals for the cathedral of Urbino. The ex-Barberini paintings only make sense if we think of them as addressed not only to the confraternity members but to Federico and Ottaviano.[2