The earliest paleo-Christian art treats the Nativity in two iconographic types. The first recalls the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24:17, "a star shall rise out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel." Christian typology took the star followed by the Magi of Matthew 2:1-12 to be the one that Balaam prophesied. The earliest known Nativity image, a 2nd- or 3rd-century painting in the Catacomb of Priscilla, has the prophet on the left pointing to the star while Mary sits on the right with the Christ Child on her lap. (See the description and photograph at the website of the Catacombs of Priscilla.) Balaam is still pointing to the star as late as the first picture on the right, from the 15th century. But by the 4th century he has been mostly replaced by the Magi themselves, who visit the child on the lap of his mother, who is seated on a throne
The other iconographic type pictures the birth event related in Luke 2:1-20, with one of the shepherds standing beside the child in the manger. In this example the shepherd's gesture signifies contemplation; in others he holds a hand up in acclamation of the Christ Child, as in the first picture at right. An ox and ass also stand at the manger. In the 3rd- or 4th-century Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (¶14) the ox and ass worship the child as a fulfillment of Isaiah 1:3, "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel hath not known me, and my people hath not understood," and of Habakkuk 3:2, "Between two animals thou art made manifest."1
The two iconographic types are by no means mutually exclusive. We see them side-by-side in the "Sarcophagus of Crispina" in Rome and woven together in the Sarcophagus of Adelphia in Syracuse, where the Magi point to the star as they approach. Over the centuries, the two types will continue to be treated either separately or woven together. For the type with just the Adoration of the Magi, see this page. The other type will soon expand to include Mary and Joseph (as in the second picture at right) as well as others, but it will always include the original crib and animals, even into the present day (example).
The Cave and the Stable
Sometimes the artist sets the birth of Jesus in a cave, as in the picture above, and sometimes in a stable. Both settings have ancient authority. Since the second century pilgrims have been visiting a cave in Bethlehem thought to be Jesus' birthplace. In that century the Protevangelium placed the birth in a cave and Justin Martyr wrote that the cave fulfilled a prophecy of Isaiah that the Messiah "shall dwell in the lofty cave of the strong rock."2 The cave setting is seen in many early images, such as the second picture at right, and has been especially popular in the East (viz. the first picture at right and this Russian icon). In the East it has been common to picture the mother and child as parallel recumbent figures with some sort of distance between them, as in the first two pictures at right. But Western Nativities have also often put the figures in parallel (example), and many set the scene in a cave (such as the picture atop this page), a testimony to the continuing influence of the actual cave in Bethlehem.
The setting in a stable also rests on good authority. Luke 2:7 says Mary swaddled the child "and laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn." A stable seems an obvious locale for a manger, and the sarcophagal Nativities of the 4th century examined above are all set in stables. Later images will take their cue from the compromise in the Pseudo-Matthew xiv, where Mary relocates the baby from a cave to a stable a few days after the birth example. Or the stable may be outside a cave (example). Especially in the Renaissance and later Middle Ages, it may be gone altogether (example).
As these examples show, the stable is usually pictured without walls so as to expose the interior. In late medieval and Renaissance works, it may also be portrayed as a ruined structure (example). This trope is clearly neither biblical nor historical. It refers to the Golden Legend's account of the collapse of the Temple of Peace at the moment of the Nativity, conceptually generalized as the end of classical culture and religion and the beginning of a new era.
The Nativity and the Eucharist
In van der Weyden's work, the ruined structures are usually churches, pointing both backward to the fall of the old religion and forward to the Eucharist. Eucharistic imagery has been important in Nativity images from the beginning, derived from Luke 2 by way of medieval exegesis. It presents the ox and ass as symbols of the Christian faithful who are nourished by the "fodder" of Christ's flesh.3 Thus, in the 6th-century icon at right the beasts push their muzzles into the manger as if to eat from it. From the 8th century we have a stone relief with the animals nibbling at the child. In a French sculpture from the 15th century the ox nibbles at the baby's fingers. Often the manger is made to resemble a small altar (example).
These Eucharistic images help the viewer to relate the Nativity to the sacrifice on the cross that is memorialized in the "sacrament of the altar." This emphasis on sacrifice is especially emphatic in El Greco's Adoration of the Shepherds, where the shepherds' gift of a trussed lamb identifies the child as the sacrificial "lamb of God."
Giotto's Arena Chapel Nativity (1303) treats the whole scene as a liturgical moment. Mary and the baby lie on an altar-like rise in the ground, beneath a roof that acts as a baldachin, sacralizing them and at the same time excluding mere onlookers. Architectural elements block the view of the beasts and angels, like a medieval rood screen, and the shepherds look on in quiet reverence, their hands folded below their waists.
The Adoration of the Christ Child
In the late 14th century an influential memoir by St. Bridget of Sweden leads to a sharp change in the iconography: Joseph and Mary now kneel before the Christ Child, who lies naked on the ground before them. Often light will radiate from the child's body, outshining the light of a candle Joseph has brought. All this comes from a passage in the memoir where Bridget recounts a vision she had when she visited the Nativity Cave in Bethlehem:
When they [Joseph and Mary] had entered the cave, and after the ox and the ass had been tied to the manger, the old man went outside and brought to the Virgin a lighted candle and fixed it in the wall and went outside in order not to be personally present at the birth. And so the Virgin then took the shoes from her feet, put off the white mantle that covered her, removed the veil from her head, and laid these things beside her, remaining in only her tunic, with her most beautiful hair – as if of gold – spread out upon her shoulder blades.…In the third picture at right Bridget prays before a faithfully detailed image of her vision. The candle, almost too faint to see, is on the wall directly above the child, who is "naked and glowing" in a golden mandorla. Mary kneels in prayer before him in a mandorla of her own. Her golden hair falls past her shoulders and she wears only a white tunic, her shoes, veil, and mantle lying on the ground behind her.
These details were enormously popular in the art of the 15th century (example, exception) and the 16th (example). They continue to dominate the iconography even today, when most Nativity scenes on Christmas cards have Mary kneeling to the Christ Child. In many of these the baby glows just as in Bridget's vision.
In 1570 Molanus (De Historia, 396) condemned picturing the baby as naked, but his influence in this case was of limited effect: the child is completely naked in almost half of the Nativities listed at the Web Gallery of Art for 1570-1670 (example).
The 2nd-century Protevangelium (¶20-21) tells of two midwives who attended Mary. One of them doubted Mary's virginity and tested it with her finger, which she nearly lost as a consequence. This is hardly a fit subject for visual presentation, so the representational tradition instead makes one or both of the midwives wash the baby in a tub. Sometimes the tub may be shaped like a round baptismal font, as in this altar screen from the 11th century.
But the notion that the newborn Savior would need a bath was inconsistent with the way writers in the West imagined the virgin birth. As early as 383, Jerome insisted that "No midwife assisted at his birth.… [Mary] laid him, we are told, in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn, a statement which…refutes the ravings of the apocryphal accounts, for Mary herself wrapped him in the swaddling clothes" (Against Helvidius, ¶10). In the 12th century Honorius of Autun seconded the tradition that "the Blessed Virgin gave birth to him…without pain and without the stain of childbirth" (Speculum Ecclesiae, 817). Molanus condemned the picturing of midwives in 1570 (De Historia, 396). But most effective of all was Bridget of Sweden's personal vision of Mary giving birth alone "in a moment and the twinkling of an eye" to a clean and splendidly naked baby without the help of any midwives (Prophecies and Revelations, XXI, 8).
This tradition combined in the 14th century with a changing aesthetic sensibility that emphasized the beholder's response to the Savior, and in the course of that century the midwives gradually disappeared from Nativities in the West. Duccio's Nativity (1308) reduced them to a design element, part of the halo of figures that surrounds and focuses attention on the mother and child. And Giotto's fresco allowed only one midwife to poke her head into the frame from the left. Bartolo di Fredi's Nativities of 1374 and 1383 have no midwives at all.
Unlike the midwives, the shepherds can be made to model the joyful response that many late Gothic and Renaissance Nativities strive to inspire in the viewer, for example in this sculpture group from the 15th century and this painting from the 16th. Unfortunately the images of this period also tend to make the shepherds look like crude yokels and block them off architecturally from the central scene. In earlier times they had more dignity (example), and in modern times they would again (example).
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University, revised 2015-12-03, 2016-09-17, 2016-11-12, 2017-10-26.
Antoniazzo Romano, The Nativity, late 15th century. See the description page.
NATIVITY TEXTS RELEVANT TO THE IMAGES