1984 20¢ Madonna and Child by Fra Filippo Lippi
· 18th Traditional Christmas stamp
· Features a 15th century painting by Fra Filippo Lippi
Stamp Category: Commemorative
Series: Traditional Christmas
Value: 20¢, rate for first-class mail
First Day of Issue: October 30, 1984
First Day City: Washington, DC
Quantity Issued: 751,300,000
Printed by: Bureau of Engraving and Printing
Printing Method: Photogravure
Format: Panes of 50 in Sheets of 200
Why the stamp was issued: For use on holiday mail.
About the stamp design: This was the fifth stamp of 1984 for Bradbury Thompson, who served as designer, typographer, and art director for this issue. The stamp image is taken from a Madonna and Child by Fra Filippo Lippi, painted on wood between 1435 and 1440. The original painting hands in the National Gallery of Art.
About the printing process: This and the other 1984 Christmas stamp were the first stamps that the Bureau of Engraving and printing “double sheeted out” in production. The stamps were fed through the Andreotti gravure press in double sheets of 400 before being cut down to sheets of 200 and then panes of 50.
First Day City: This stamp was issued at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where the original painting hangs. This was the 13th Traditional Christmas stamp to feature an artwork taken from that gallery.
About the Christmas Series: By the early 1960s, the US Post Office was receiving 1,000 letters a year (for several years) asking for a Christmas-themed stamp to frank their holiday mail. The idea was approved and the US issued its first Christmas stamp on November 1, 1962.
The stamp was wildly popular, featuring popular holiday decorations of a wreath and candles. The Post Office Department had expected there would be a great demand for the issue, so they printed 350 million stamps – the largest print run for a special stamp up to that time. Those 350 million stamps sold out quickly, leading the Bureau of Engraving and Printing to produce more stamps – reaching over 860 million by the end of the year.
While the Christmas stamp was very popular, it wasn’t without its detractors. Some didn’t agree with the idea of the post office issuing a stamp honoring a religious holiday. Others wanted Christmas stamps that were more religious. The Post Office would continue to issue Christmas stamps in the coming years that featured the National Christmas Tree, seasonal plants, and an angel in 1965. The angel was considered less controversial because angels are included in many religions, not just Christianity.
In 1966, the Post Office came up with a plan to produce Christmas stamps utilizing classic paintings of the Madonna and Child. These stamps wouldn’t violate the separation of church and state because they were a celebration of culture. On November 1, 1966, they issued the first US Madonna and Child stamp in Christmas, Michigan. The stamp featured the 15th century painting, Madonna and Child with Angels, by Flemish painter Hans Memling.
That stamp was very popular and over 1.1 billion were printed. The same design was used again the following year, however, the 1967 stamp was larger and showed more of the painting. The stamp’s continued popularity led the Post Office to issue another traditional Christmas stamp in 1968, this time picturing the Angel Gabriel. For the 1969 issue, they reverted back to the non-religious theme, with a stamp picturing a painting called Winter Sunday in Norway, Maine.
The Post Office made a big change in 1970. To keep people in both camps happy, they issued one traditional Christmas stamp, picturing a classic painting of the Nativity, plus a block of four picturing Christmas toys. That decision proved popular and they have continued to issue stamps with both traditional and contemporary Christmas themes ever since.
History the stamp represents: Born in Florence in 1406, Filippo Lippi was orphaned at the age of two and lived with an aunt until he was eight and sent to a Carmelite convent. He was ordained as a priest in 1425 and spent much of his time drawing on any piece of paper he found. He studied under Masaccio and earned notoriety for his paintings. He left the priesthood to marry a nun, Lucrezia Buti, who served as the model for many of his paintings. Though he was no longer a month, he continued to sign his paintings “Fra,” meaning monk or brother.
Florence, Italy, was the center of the Italian Renaissance in the 15th century, and home to many artists. It was a large, prosperous city heavily influenced by the Roman Catholic Church. Famous religious figures, such as the Madonna and Child, were featured in many artist’s works, which can still be found in the city’s churches and museums.
Each Florentine artist had a slightly different technique, but their styles and themes often overlapped. The most common style was naturalism or realism. This concept focused on creating realistic paintings and sculptures that were usually very detailed, precise, and life-like.
The most common medium used by 15th century painters was egg tempera on wooden panels. The paint was created by mixing powdered pigments with egg yolk and sometimes white wine or vinegar. Egg tempera often smelled strongly, even after the painting had completely dried. Many artists mixed myrrh (a pleasant-smelling resin) with their paint to mask the odor.
Egg tempera was a tricky paint to create and it took a skilled artist to master the medium. Thanks to egg tempera’s durability, some famous artists’ awe-inspiring works are still intact today – giving a first-hand view of the progression of art during the Renaissance.