The Sancta Sanctorum Reliquary Box: Detail, The Nativity

6th century
Carved wood, engraved and partially gilded; encaustic painting on wood, 9.4 x 7 x .4 in. (24 x 18.4 x 1 cm.)
Chapel of St. Peter Martyr, Vatican City

This image features details that will stay with Nativity iconography for many centuries. The ox and ass are still in evidence in contemporary Nativity images. The mother and child continue to recline in separate spaces, the child above and closer to the animals, through the early Middle Ages in the west and still today in Orthodox icons, as does the cave setting. Joseph's contemplative pose also continues for many centuries. Here the ass has the child's left leg in its mouth and the ox seems also to be about to take a bite. This allusion to the Eucharist, in which the faithful take the body of Christ into themselves, is another feature that will continue into countless medieval images.

View the entire cover of the box.
Read more about the Nativity.