The Birth of Jesus

THE ICONOGRAPHY
The earliest paleo-Christian art treats the Nativity in two iconographic types. The first arises from Matthew's account, in which the Magi are led to the birthplace by a star. Christian typology took the star and the Magi's visit to be a fulfilment of the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24:17, "a star shall rise out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel." 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 Coptic image on the right, from the 15th century, and perhaps this one from 14th-century Germany. 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 (example).

The other paleo-Christian type follows Luke rather than Matthew. The Magi are absent, the child is in a manger, and next to the manger will be a standing shepherd and/or a seated Virgin Mary. 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.

These Lucan images also introduce the ox and ass that will continue to figure in Nativity images right up to the present day. The manger implies the presence of such beasts, and the 3rd- or 4th-century Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew has them worshiping the child in 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 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, the ox and ass at the top of the image, and the midwives at the bottom washing the baby (example). Western Nativities also sometimes place 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, the cave may be gone altogether (example).

Ruined Structures

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, as in the fourth picture at right.

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.…

And when all these things had thus been prepared, then the Virgin knelt with great reverence, putting herself at prayer; and she kept her back toward the manger and her face lifted to heaven toward the east.….and then and there, in a moment and the twinkling of an eye, she gave birth to a Son, from whom there went out such great and ineffable light and splendor that the sun could not be compared to it.

[After the birth] I saw that glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing in the greatest of neatness.… When therefore the Virgin felt that she had now given birth, at once, having bowed her head and joined her hands, with great dignity and reverence she adored the boy.… When these things therefore were accomplished, the old man [Joseph] entered; and prostrating on the earth, he adored him on bended knee and wept for joy.4
The rapid acceptance of St. Bridget's account may have been facilitated by its resemblance to the Book of the Infancy of the Savior and its primary source, the Gospel of Pseudo Matthew.5 In both Bridget and the Infancy, Mary lifts her face to Heaven just before the birth and adores the child immediately after. Both narratives note the remarkable cleanness of the child's body, "not begrimed as other infants are when they are born covered in filth," as the Infancy puts it. In all three narratives, the location is a cave and Joseph is away when the birth occurs.

Most tellingly, all three compare the light in the cave to the sun. For Bridget the child gives off a light so great "that the sun could not be compared to it." In the Infancy he gives off a "light that outshone the sun" and in Pseudo Matthew the cave is bathed in light "as bright as if the sun were in it." The brilliant light is a detail unseen in Nativity images before Bridget, as is Mary's posture of adoration. The child's nakedness, another feature of the images after Bridget, is explicitly mentioned only in her account, but it is presupposed in the Infancy by the midwife's amazement at the emanating light and the cleanliness of the body.

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. In most later images that otherwise follow the vision closely, she is nevertheless clad in the mantle (example).

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 representation of St. Joseph was also revolutionized by Bridget's vision. In the earliest images he is usually absent, but medieval images picture him at the left or right with his hand held against his cheek (example). But after Bridget he usually holds the candle mentioned in the vision and/or joins Mary in kneeling before the Christ Child.

The Midwives

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 (fourth picture at right) 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.

THE SHEPHERDS

Nativities with the Adoration of the Shepherds often echo the Adoration of the Magi. Usually there are precisely three shepherds, differentiated by age – a youth, an old man, and one in middle age. Like the Magi, shepherds from the 14th century onward may bring the child a gift. In the English mystery plays the gifts are small and humble, but in paintings the men are more likely to bring a lamb (example).

Unlike the midwives, the men pictured adoring the Christ Child 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, where the smiling shepherd in blue appears to be carrying a bagpipe on his back.

Befitting this emphasis on the joy of the savior's birth, the shepherds are associated with music in a number of images and texts, perhaps as a counterpart to the song of the announcing angels. In Bronzino's Adoration an old shepherd has a bagpipe on his back, and in this sculpture the instrument is a flute. In the Shepherds Play at Chester it is a horn, and in the York play the shepherds respond to the angels with song of their own.6

It is rare for images of the angel's announcement to the shepherds in the fields to depart from this emphasis on joy. In scripture their initial response was terror: "And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them [n.b., not above in the heavens but right beside them, juxta illos in the Latin] and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear" (Luke 2:9). A few images will register a bit of the fear by having one shepherd hold a hand to his eyes (example), but a serious rendering of the fear such as in this detail from a Lorenzo Monaco Nativity is very much the exception.

Unfortunately many medieval images of the shepherds tend to reflect the prejudices of the age, making the shepherds look like crude yokels and blocking them off architecturally from the central scene, as in this 14th-century Nativity or this one from the 15th or early 16th. They had more dignity in earlier times (example), and they would again from the mid-16th (example) into modern times (example).

THE PROPHETS

The birth of Christ was believed to have been foretold by the prophets of old. In the Tridentine masses for Christmas, for example, the introits and communion verses were all taken from texts of Isaiah and the Psalms thought to be predictive of the Nativity. And the Mirror of Human Salvation cites a number of presumed prophecies from those two sources.7

In dramatic works such as the Be­ne­dikt­beu­ern Christmas Play, the Chester "Nativity," or the "Prophets" and "Caesar Augustus" plays in the Towneley cycle, a succession of prophets and presumed prophets would step forward and tell their prophecy as a prelude to the Nativity or the Annunciation. The speakers might include Moses, Aaron, David, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, Balaam, or "the Sibyl."8

The Sibyl's legend was that Caesar Augustus asked that Roman prophet on the day of Jesus' birth whether he should agree to be worshiped as a god. She then saw in the sky a vision of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus in a golden circle as bright as the sun. She pointed it out to the emperor. In some versions of the legend Augustus then ordered that no one pray to this new king; in others he built an altar to honor him.

Balaam's blessing on Israel in Numbers 22 included the words "A star shall rise out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel" (22:14), which Christians took to be a prophecy of the Magi's star.

The visual art was less likely to attach the prophets to Nativity images, but examples include the first picture at right (with Balaam), the fourth picture at right (with Isaiah and Ezekiel) and this polyptych panel (with the Sibyl).

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, 2018-02-27, 2020-01-29, 2020-05-20, 2020-08-08, 2020-10-18.

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SHOWN ABOVE:
Antoniazzo Romano, The Nativity, late 15th century. (See the description page).

OTHER IMAGES

In the bottom of this 15th cen­tury Cop­tic Na­ti­vi­ty Ba­laam points the way to the star for the three Magi. (See the description page.)

Detail from the 6th-century "Sancta Sanctorum" icon – (See the description page.)


This painting is the earliest artistic representation of Bridget's vision of the Nativity. (See the description page for a discussion of the details.)


Duccio di Buon Insegna, 1308-11. The Nativity is flanked by Isaiah and Ezekiel, holding scrolls with their prophecies of the event. (See the description page.)

MORE IMAGES

  • Fourth century: Sarcophagus fragment with Mary, the baby in the manger, and the ass munching at the manger.
  • Fifth century: In this ivory plaque St. Joseph wears just a working man's tunic and holds a saw emblematic of his trade. He and Mary sit left and right of the manger.
  • Third quarter of the 11th century: Ivory reliquary with the shepherds giving gifts to the child, a topic seen from time to time throughout the Middle Ages. As in the images on the 4th-century sarcophagi and the early catacomb painting, Mary is seated.
  • 1160s-1170s: An Orthodox mosaic in Sicily, composition similar to Duccio's 1308 Nativity.
  • First quarter of the 13th century: A highly stylized enamel with a seated Joseph and recumbent mother and child. The Metropolitan Museum has a similar enamel from 1165 with the figures disposed in the same way (accession number 17.190.418).
  • Second half of the 13th century: A very traditional image of the Nativity is included in this manuscript illumination.
  • 1291: Apse mosaics in Santa Maria in Trastevere, with three Nativity subjects.
  • 13th/14th century: An Austrian fresco in the traditional iconography.
  • First half of 14th century: Relief on the façade of Orvieto Cathedral, retaining the midwives but putting them to the 14th-century purpose of inspiring wonder and joy.
  • 1325-70: Panels 3 and 4, window 3 in Regensburg Cathedral's Life of Mary Windows
  • 1351-60: Fresco in Pomposa Abbey harmonizing the older iconography with High Gothic sentiment.
  • 1376: One of the last Western Nativities with a midwife.
  • 1390-1420: Pietro di Miniato's Annunciation includes a small Nativity image with Bridget of Sweden joining in the adoration of the Christ Child.
  • 14th century (?): A relief of the Adoration of the Shepherds, with only two shepherds?
  • 1414: A predella panel in Lorenzo Monaco's Coronation of the Virgin with Saints.
  • 1420-23: A "Madonna of Humility" Nativity scene.
  • mid-15th century: Van der Weyden's huge Polyptych of the Nativity covers five Nativity episodes plus the Fall of Man.
  • 1446: The Nativity in an Initial H, from an antiphonary in Florence.
  • 1463: In Filippo Lippi's Adoration of the Christ Child the usual details of a Brigittine Nativity are replaced by an imaginary setting in which the child's divinity is announced by the Father, Holy Spirit, and John the Baptist.
  • 1474: A fresco in Croatia using details from Bridget's vision and some from the earlier tradition.
  • 1475-80: Botticelli's Nativity has the Brigittine kneeling Mary and glowing child, but also kneeling is a child John the Baptist already in a camel skin.
  • 1476-78: Hugo van der Goes's triptych, The Adoration of the Shepherds adds the Portinari family and their patron saints to an already well-attended Nativity scene.
  • 1479: The Nativity is pictured in the open state of Memling's Jan Floreins Triptych.
  • 1488-90: Pinturicchio's Nativity is one of many examples in which the three shepherds represent the three ages of man.
  • late 15th/early 16th century: Mazzolino's simple, quiet take on the subject.
  • 1500-1520: Christ is Born as Man's Redeemer, a vast allegory in tapestry.
  • 16th century: Fresco in Istria (Northwest Croatia).
  • 16th century: A Nativity partly Bridgettine in inspiration and partly based on earlier traditions.
  • 16th century (?): A painting in the church of San Luigi Francesi, Rome. Its label says it is "of uncertain paternity." The kneeling angel is a 16th-century innovation.
  • 1515-20: Detail from Fifteen Mysteries of the Rosary by Goswijn van der Weyden.
  • 1578-81: Tintoretto's bold reimagining of Adoration of the Shepherds iconography.
  • 1599: Cigoli's Adoration of the Shepherds with St. Catherine of Alexandria includes that saint and St. Anthony Abbot.
  • Post-16th? A predella panel in Croatia.
  • 17th century: Andrea Pozzo's The Census in Bethlehem.
  • 18th century (est.): A Nativity including a divine commendation by the Father and the Holy Spirit.
  • 1895: Detail from Josef Dettlinger's archaizing Marienaltar.

NATIVITY TEXTS RELEVANT TO THE IMAGES

ALSO SEE

NOTES

1 Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, ¶14. Habakkuk's phrase "between two animals" is only in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that was used in early Christian communities. See the bibliography for an English translation of the Septuagint.

2 UNESCO World Heritage Center, "Birthplace of Jesus." Protevangelium of James, xviii. Justin Martyr, Trypho, lxxviii. Isaiah 33:16 (Septuagint). The cave appears only in the Greek Septuagint translation of the verse from Isaiah. In the Vulgate, the standard translation in the Latin West, the phrase is "on high, in the fortifications of rocks," which obviates Justin's interpretation.

3 Luke 2:7,12,16. Gregory the Great's homily on Luke 2 says, "Thus he is born and lies in a manger, so that all the faithful (that is, the holy animals) may be refreshed by the grain that is his flesh" (Migne, Pat. Lat. LXXVI, 1104). Honorius (Speculum Ecclesiae, 818): "The ass, (interpreted as the Gentiles) and the ox (interpreted as the Jews) are led by faith to eat the body of Christ." Similarly, see pseudo-Bede (Migne XCII, 331) "He who is the bread of angels lay in the manger so he could nourish us as holy animals with the fodder of his flesh". (All translations mine.) See especially Leah Marcus on the influence of these interpretations on medieval art and the English cycle plays.

4 Bridget of Sweden, Prophecies and Revelations, VII, 21.

5 The Book of the Infancy of the Savior goes by a variety of names in the scholarly literature. It can be consulted in M. L. James, Latin Infancy Gospels, where sections 62-75 cover the Nativity. Bradley's online commentary includes a partial translation into English, and Santos Otero translates the Nativity and Magi sections into Spanish in Los Evangelios Apócrifos, 110-117. Santos Otero suggests a date in the 9th century. Its principal source is the Gospel of Pseudo Matthew, which has been dated anywhere from the 5th to the 9th century; but James (xxiv-xxv) posits an additional source dating to the 2nd century on the basis of the book's apparently "docetic" "Docetism" holds that the Christ was a spiritual being who only appeared to be a physical presence. passages, especially the midwife's statement that a light descended from Heaven, formed itself into the shape of a child, and entered Mary, who then gave birth. Also suspiciously docetic is the child's apparent weightlessness when the midwife holds him in her arms. And her detailed insistence that the birth did not impair Mary's virginity, although consistent with orthodox teaching, could nevertheless have arisen from a docetic belief that what seemed a physical parturition was only an illusion.

6 Deimling, I, 138-39. Bevington, 380; and compare the song of the Towneley shepherds that precedes the Mak episode, ibid., 390.

7 Speculum Humanae Salvationis, 32-33 (chapter 8). Missale Romanum, 16-20.

8 In the Chester "Nativity" narrative from scripture alternates with the story of Caesar and the Sibyl. In the Benediktbeuern Christmas Play St. Augustine calls in turn on Isaiah, Daniel, the Sibyl, Aaron, and Balaam (Bevington, 180-201). In the Towneley cycle the Annunciation play is preceded by one sequence with prophets and another with the Sibyl.

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