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
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
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).
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.…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 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.
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 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.
Antoniazzo Romano, The Nativity, late 15th century. (See the description page).
NATIVITY TEXTS RELEVANT TO THE IMAGES