Nativity of Jesus in art

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The Nativity of Jesus has been a major subject of Christian art since the 4th century. The artistic depictions of the Nativity of Jesus are based on the narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and further elaborated by written, oral and artistic tradition. The nativity has been depicted in many different media, both pictorial and sculptural. Pictorial forms include murals, panel paintings, manuscript illuminations, stained glass windows and oil paintings. The subject of the nativity is often used for altarpieces, many of these combining both painted and sculptural elements. Other sculptural representations of the nativity include ivory miniatures, carved stone sarcophagi, architectural features such as capitals and door lintels, and free standing sculptures.

Free-standing sculptures of the Nativity often take the form of a "creche" or "presepe", which is a tableau or nativity scene that are usually temporary fixtures within a church, home, public place or natural setting. The scale of the figures may range from miniature to life-sized. These nativity scenes probably derived from acted tableau vivants in Rome, although Saint Francis of Assisi gave the tradition a great boost. This tradition continues to this day, with many small nativity scenes being made commercially from porcelain, plaster, plastic or cardboard for display in the home.

Early Christianity

Magi bearing gifts, 4th-century sarcophagus, Rome

The earliest pictorial representations of Jesus' Nativity come from sarcophagi in Rome and Southern Gaul of around this date.[1] They are later than the first scenes of the Adoration of the Magi, which appears in the catacombs of Rome, where Early Christians buried their dead, often decorating the walls of the underground passages and vaults with paintings. Many of these predate the legalisation of Christian worship by the Emperor Constantine in the early 4th century. Typically the Magi move in step together, holding their gifts in front of them, towards a seated Virgin with Christ on her lap. They closely resemble the motif of tribute-bearers which is common in the art of most Mediterranean and Middle-Eastern cultures, and goes back at least two millennia earlier in the case of Egypt; in contemporary Roman art defeated barbarians carry golden wreaths towards an enthroned Emperor.[2]

4th-century sarcophagus, Milan; one of the earliest nativity images

The earliest representations of the nativity itself are very simple, just showing the infant, tightly wrapped, lying near the ground in a trough or wicker basket. The ox and ass are always present, even when Mary or any other human is not. Although they are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts they were regarded as confirmed by scripture from some Old Testament verses, such as Isaiah 1,3:"The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib" and Habakkuk 3,2: "in the midst of the two beasts wilt thou be known", and their presence was never questioned by theologians.[3] They were regarded by Augustine, Ambrose and others as representing the Jewish people, weighed down by the Law (the ox), and the pagan peoples, carrying the sin of idolatry (the ass). Christ was arrived to free both from their burdens. Mary is only shown when the scene is the Adoration of the Magi, but often one of the shepherds, or a prophet with a scroll, is present. From the end of the 5th century (following the Council of Ephesus), Mary becomes a fixture in the scene; then as later Joseph is a more variable element. Where a building is shown, it is usually a tugurium, a simple tiled roof supported by posts.[4]

Byzantine image

Modern Orthodox mural from Israel using a depiction little changed in over a millennium.

A new form of the image, which from the rare early versions seems to have been formulated in 6th-century Palestine, was to set the essential form of Eastern Orthodox images down to the present day. The setting is now a cave – or rather the specific Cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem, already underneath the Church of the Nativity, and well-established as a place of pilgrimage, with the approval of the Church. Above the opening a mountain, represented in miniature, rises up.[5] Mary now lies recovering on a large stuffed cushion or couch ("kline" in Greek) beside the infant, who is on a raised structure,[6] whilst Joseph rests his head on his hand.[7] He is often part of a separate scene in the foreground, where Jesus is being bathed by midwives (Jesus is therefore shown twice). Despite the less than ideal conditions, Mary is lying-in, the term for the period of enforced bed rest in the postpartum period after childbirth that was prescribed until modern times. The midwife or midwives come from early apocryphal sources; the main one is usually called Salome, and has her own miracle of the withered hand, although this is rare in art. They featured in most medieval dramas and mystery plays of the Nativity, which often influenced painted depictions. Several apocryphal accounts speak of a great light illuminating the scene, also taken to be the star of the Magi, and this is indicated by a circular disc at the top of the scene, with a band coming straight down from it – both are often dark in colour.[8]

The Magi may be shown approaching at the top left on horseback, wearing strange pillbox-like headgear, and the shepherds at the right of the cave. Angels usually surround the scene if there is room, including the top of the cave; often one is telling the shepherds the good news of Christ's birth. The figure of an old man, often dressed in animal skins, who begins as one of the shepherds in early depictions, but later sometimes addresses Joseph, is usually interpreted as the Prophet Isaiah, or a hermit repeating his prophecy, though in later Orthodox depictions he sometimes came to be regarded as the "Tempter" (the "shepherd-tempter"), an Orthodox term for Satan, who is encouraging Joseph to doubt the Virgin Birth.[9]

The Orthodox icon of the Nativity uses certain imagery parallel to that on the epitaphios (burial shroud of Jesus) and other icons depicting the burial of Jesus on Good Friday. This is done intentionally to illustrate the theological point that the purpose of the Incarnation of Christ was to make possible the Crucifixion and Resurrection. The icon of the Nativity depicts the Christ Child wrapped in swaddling clothes reminiscent of his burial wrappings. The child is often shown lying on a stone, representing the Tomb of Christ, rather than a manger. The Cave of the Nativity is also a reminder of the cave in which Jesus was buried. Some icons of the Nativity show the Virgin Mary kneeling rather than reclining, indicating the tradition that the Theotokos gave birth to Christ without pain (to contradict the perceived heresy in Nestorianism).[10]

Byzantine and Orthodox tradition

Late Byzantine tradition in Western Europe

Western Europe

Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans, c. 1490, after a composition by Hugo van der Goes of c. 1470, influenced by the visions of Saint Bridget of Sweden. Sources of light are the infant Jesus, the shepherds' fire on the hill behind, and the angel who appears to them.

The West adopted many of the Byzantine iconographic elements, but preferred the stable rather than the cave, though Duccio's Byzantine-influenced Maestà version tries to have both. The midwives gradually dropped out from Western depictions, as Latin theologians disapproved of these legends; sometimes the bath remains, either being got ready or with Mary bathing Jesus. The midwives are still seen where Byzantine influence is strong, especially in Italy; as in Giotto, one may hand Jesus over to his mother. During the Gothic period, in the North earlier than in Italy, increasing closeness between mother and child develops, and Mary begins to hold her baby, or he looks over to her. Suckling is very unusual, but is sometimes shown.[11]

The image in later medieval Northern Europe was often influenced by the vision of the Nativity of Saint Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373), a very popular mystic. Shortly before her death, she described a vision of the infant Jesus as lying on the ground, and emitting light himself, and describes the Virgin as blond-haired; many depictions reduced other light sources in the scene to emphasize this effect, and the Nativity remained very commonly treated with chiaroscuro through to the Baroque. Other details such as a single candle "attached to the wall", and the presence of God the Father above, also come from Bridget's vision:

...the virgin knelt down with great veneration in an attitude of prayer, and her back was turned to the manger.... And while she was standing thus in prayer, I saw the child in her womb move and suddenly in a moment she gave birth to her son, from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendour, that the sun was not comparable to it, nor did the candle that St. Joseph had put there, give any light at all, the divine light totally annihilating the material light of the candle.... I saw the glorious infant lying on the ground naked and shining. His body was pure from any kind of soil and impurity. Then I heard also the singing of the angels, which was of miraculous sweetness and great beauty...[12]

After this the Virgin kneels to pray to her child, to be joined by St Joseph, and this (technically known as the "Adoration of Christ"or "of the Child") becomes one of the commonest depictions in the 15th century, largely replacing the reclining Virgin in the West. Versions of this depiction occur as early as 1300, well before Bridget's vision, and have a Franciscan origin.[13]

This Nativity by Rogier van der Weyden, follows Bridget's vision, with donor portrait and ruins

Saint Joseph, traditionally regarded as an old man, is often shown asleep in Nativities, and becomes a somewhat comical figure in some depictions, untidily dressed, and unable to help with proceedings. In some depictions, mostly German, he wears a Jewish hat.[14] In medieval mystery plays, he was usually a comic figure, amiable but somewhat incapable, although he is sometimes showing cutting up his hose to make the swaddling-cloth for the child,[15] or lighting a fire. Saint Joseph's cult was increasingly promoted in the late Middle Ages in the West, by the Franciscans and others (his feast was only added to the Roman Breviary in 1479). By the 15th century he is often more dignified, and this improvement continued through the Renaissance and Baroque, until a resurgence of Marian emphasis in the 17th century again often leaves him stranded on the margins of Nativity compositions. The candle lit by St Joseph in Bridget's vision becomes an attribute, which he is often shown holding, lit or unlit, in broad daylight.

In a fully illuminated Book of hours it was normal to include pages illustrating all four of the Nativity, the Announcement to the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Magi and the Flight into Egypt (and/or the Massacre of the Innocents) as part of the eight images in the sequence of the Hours of the Virgin.[16] Nativity images became increasing popular in panel paintings in the 15th century, although on altarpieces the Holy Family often had to share the picture space with donor portraits. In Early Netherlandish painting the usual simple shed, little changed from Late Antiquity, developed into an elaborate ruined temple, initially Romanesque in style, which represented the dilapidated state of the Old Covenant of the Jewish law. The use of Romanesque architecture to identify Jewish rather than Christian settings is a regular feature of the paintings of Jan van Eyck and his followers.[17] In Italian works the architecture of such temples became classical, reflecting the growing interest in the ancient world.[18] An additional reference made by these temples was to the legend, reported in the popular compilation of the Golden Legend, that on the night of Christ's birth the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome, supposed to house a statue of Romulus, had partly tumbled to the ground, leaving the impressive ruins that survive today.[19]


Early Medieval Western images


International Gothic

Proto-Renaissance in Italy

Renaissance and after

From the 15th century onwards, the Adoration of the Magi increasingly became a more common depiction than the Nativity proper, partly as the subject lent itself to many pictorial details and rich colouration, and partly as paintings became larger, with more space for the more crowded subject. The scene is increasingly conflated with the Adoration of the Shepherds from the late Middle Ages onwards, though they have been shown combined on occasions since Late Antiquity. In the West the Magi developed large exotically-dressed retinues, which sometimes threaten to take over the composition by the time of the Renaissance; there is undoubtedly a loss of concentration on the religious meaning of the scenes in some examples, especially in 15th-century Florence, where large secular paintings were still a considerable novelty. The large and famous wall-painting of the Procession of the Magi in the Magi Chapel of the Palazzo Medici there, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli in 1459–1461 and full of portraits of the family, only reveals its religious subject by its location in a chapel, and its declared title. There are virtually no indications that this is the subject contained in the work itself, although the altarpiece for the chapel was the Adoration in the Forest by Filippo Lippi (now Berlin).

The Magi, stained glass by John Hardman and Co in St. Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney.

From the 16th century plain Nativities with just the Holy Family, become a clear minority, though Caravaggio led a return to a more realistic treatment of the Adoration of the Shepherds. The compositions, as with most religious scenes, becomes more varied as artistic originality becomes more highly regarded than iconographic tradition; the works illustrated by Gerard van Honthorst, Georges de La Tour, and Charles Le Brun of the Adoration of the Shepherds all show different poses and actions by Mary, none quite the same as the traditional ones. The subject becomes surprisingly uncommon in the artistic mainstream after the 18th century, even given the general decline in religious painting. William Blake's illustrations of On the Morning of Christ's Nativity are a typically esoteric treatment in watercolour. Edward Burne-Jones, working with Morris & Co., produced major works on the theme, with a set of stained glass windows at Trinity Church, Boston (1882), a tapestry of the Adoration of the Magi (ten copies, from 1890) and a painting of the same subject (1887). Popular religious depictions have continued to flourish, despite the competition from secular Christmas imagery.

Early Renaissance

High Renaissance

Renaissance in Northern Italy

Northern Renaissance


Baroque and Rococo

After 1800

Popular art

See also


Modern stained glass from the Taufkapelle, Koblenz-Arenberg
  1. Schiller:59
  2. Schiller:100
  3. Schiller:60. In fact this sense of the Habakkuk is found in the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, but Jerome's Latin Vulgate, followed by the Authorised Version, translates differently:"O Lord, revive thy work in the midst of the years, in the midst of the years make known" in the AV
  4. Schiller:59–62
  5. The mountain follows Scriptural verses such as Habakkuk 3.3 "God [came] from Mount Paran", and the title of Mary as "Holy mountain". Schiller:63
  6. partly reflecting the arrangement in the Church of the Nativity, where pilgrims already peered under an altar into the actual cave (now the altar is much higher). The actual altar is sometimes shown. Schiller:63
  7. Schiller:62-3
  8. Schiller:62–63
  9. Schiller:66. In late works a young man may fend the tempter off. See: Léonid Ouspensky, The Meaning of Icons, p. 160, 1982, St Vladimir's Seminary, ISBN 0-913836-99-0. In pp.157–160 there is a full account of the later Orthodox iconography of the Nativity.
  10. Lua error in package.lua at line 80: module 'strict' not found.
  11. Schiller:74
  12. Quoted Schiller:78
  13. Schiller:76-8
  14. For example Schiller, figs. 173 & 175, both from Lower Saxony between 1170 and 1235, & fig. 183, 14th century German.
  15. from about 1400; apparently this detail comes from popular songs. Schiller:80
  16. Harthan, John, The Book of Hours,p.28 , 1977, Thomas Y Crowell Company, New York, ISBN 0-690-01654-9
  17. Schiller, pp. 49–50. Purtle, Carol J, Van Eyck's Washington 'Annunciation': narrative time and metaphoric tradition, p.4 and notes 9–14, Art Bulletin, March, 1999. Page references are to online version. online text. Also see The Iconography of the Temple in Northern Renaissance Art by Yona Pinson
  18. Schiller:91-82
  19. Lloyd, Christopher, The Queen's Pictures, Royal Collectors through the centuries, p.226, National Gallery Publications, 1991, ISBN 0-947645-89-6. In fact the Basilica was built in the 4th century. Some later painters used the remains as a basis for their depictions.


G Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. I,1971 (English trans from German), Lund Humphries, London, pp. 58–124 & figs 140–338, ISBN 0-85331-270-2