Nativity of Jesus in art

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Georges de La Tour c. 1644 L'adoration des bergers (La Tour).jpg
Georges de La Tour c. 1644
Master of Vyssi Brod, a Bohemian master, c. 1350. The influence of Italian Byzantine painting was strong in the court of Charles IV. Meister von Hohenfurth 002.jpg
Master of Vyšší Brod, a Bohemian master, c. 1350. The influence of Italian Byzantine painting was strong in the court of Charles IV.

The Nativity of Jesus has been a major subject of Christian art since the 4th century.

Nativity of Jesus accounts of the birth of Jesus

The nativity of Jesus or birth of Jesus is the basis for the Christian holiday of Christmas and is described in the gospels of Luke and Matthew. The two accounts differ, but agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea during the reign of King Herod the Great, his mother Mary was married to a man named Joseph, who was descended from King David and was not his biological father, and that his birth was caused by divine intervention. Luke's version says the birth took place during a Roman census, mentions an announcement to shepherds by angels, presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and gives the name of the angel who announces the coming birth to Mary. Matthew's version mentions the arrival of the Magi, the flight into Egypt by the family, and the Massacre of the Innocents by King Herod. The consensus of scholars is that both gospels were written about AD 75-85, and while it is possible that one account might be based on the other, or that the two share common source material, the majority conclusion is that the two nativity narratives are independent of each other.

Christian art art genre

Christian art is sacred art which uses themes and imagery from Christianity. Most Christian groups use or have used art to some extent, although some have had strong objections to some forms of religious image, and there have been major periods of iconoclasm within Christianity.


The artistic depictions of the Nativity or birth of Jesus, celebrated at Christmas, are based on the narratives in the Bible, in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and further elaborated by written, oral and artistic tradition. Christian art includes a great many representations of the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child. Such works are generally referred to as the "Madonna and Child" or "Virgin and Child". They are not usually representations of the Nativity specifically, but are often devotional objects representing a particular aspect or attribute of the Virgin Mary, or Jesus. Nativity pictures, on the other hand, are specifically illustrative, and include many narrative details; they are a normal component of the sequences illustrating both the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin.

Jesus Central figure of Christianity

Jesus, also referred to as Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus Christ, was a first-century Jewish preacher and religious leader. He is the central figure of Christianity, and is widely described as the most influential person in history. Most Christians believe he is the incarnation of God the Son and the awaited Messiah (Christ) prophesied in the Old Testament.

Christmas holiday originating in Christianity, usually celebrated on December 25 (in the Gregorian or Julian calendars)

Christmas is an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ observed on December 25. as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world. A feast central to the Christian liturgical year, it is preceded by the season of Advent or the Nativity Fast and initiates the season of Christmastide, which historically in the West lasts twelve days and culminates on Twelfth Night; in some traditions, Christmastide includes an octave. Christmas Day is a public holiday in many of the world's nations, is celebrated religiously by a majority of Christians, as well as culturally by many non-Christians, and forms an integral part of the holiday season centered around it.

Gospel description of the life of Jesus, canonical or apocryphal

Gospel originally meant the Christian message itself, but in the 2nd century it came to be used for the books in which the message was set out. The four canonical gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke and John — were probably written between AD 66 and 110, building on older sources and traditions, and each gospel has its own distinctive understanding of Jesus and his divine role. All four are anonymous, and it is almost certain that none were written by an eyewitness. They are the main source of information on the life of Jesus as searched for in the quest for the historical Jesus. Modern scholars are cautious of relying on them unquestioningly, but critical study attempts to distinguish the original ideas of Jesus from those of the later authors. Many non-canonical gospels were also written, all later than the four, and all, like them, advocating the particular theological views of their authors.

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.

Panel painting painting made on a flat panel made of wood

A panel painting is a painting made on a flat panel made of wood, either a single piece, or a number of pieces joined together. Until canvas became the more popular support medium in the 16th century, it was the normal form of support for a painting not on a wall (fresco) or vellum, which was used for miniatures in illuminated manuscripts and paintings for the framing.

Stained glass decorative window composed of pieces of coloured glass

The term stained glass can refer to coloured glass as a material or to works created from it. Throughout its thousand-year history, the term has been applied almost exclusively to the windows of churches and other significant religious buildings. Although traditionally made in flat panels and used as windows, the creations of modern stained glass artists also include three-dimensional structures and sculpture. Modern vernacular usage has often extended the term "stained glass" to include domestic lead light and objects d'art created from foil glasswork exemplified in the famous lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Oil painting process of painting with pigments that are bound with a medium of drying oil

Oil painting is the process of painting with pigments with a medium of drying oil as the binder. Commonly used drying oils include linseed oil, poppy seed oil, walnut oil, and safflower oil. The choice of oil imparts a range of properties to the oil paint, such as the amount of yellowing or drying time. Certain differences, depending on the oil, are also visible in the sheen of the paints. An artist might use several different oils in the same painting depending on specific pigments and effects desired. The paints themselves also develop a particular consistency depending on the medium. The oil may be boiled with a resin, such as pine resin or frankincense, to create a varnish prized for its body and gloss.

Free-standing sculptures may be grouped into a Nativity scene (crib, creche or presepe) within or outside 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 small versions made of porcelain, plaster, plastic or cardboard sold for display in the home. The acted scenes evolved into the Nativity play.

Nativity scene representation of the birth of Christ

In the Christian tradition, a nativity scene (also known as a manger scene, crib, crèche is the special exhibition, particularly during the Christmas season, of art objects representing the birth of Jesus. While the term "nativity scene" may be used of any representation of the very common subject of the Nativity of Jesus in art, it has a more specialized sense referring to seasonal displays, either using model figures in a setting or reenactments called "living nativity scenes" in which real humans and animals participate. Nativity scenes exhibit figures representing the infant Jesus, his mother, Mary, and her husband, Joseph.

<i>Tableau vivant</i> static scene containing one or more actors or models

A tableau vivant, French for 'living picture', is a static scene containing one or more actors or models. They are stationary and silent, usually in costume, carefully posed, with props and/or scenery, and may be theatrically lit. It thus combines aspects of theatre and the visual arts.

Francis of Assisi Catholic saint and founder of the Franciscan Order

Saint Francis of Assisi, born Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone, informally named as Francesco, was an Italian Catholic friar, deacon and preacher. He founded the men's Order of Friars Minor, the women's Order of Saint Clare, the Third Order of Saint Francis and the Custody of the Holy Land. Francis is one of the most venerated religious figures in history.

The wider Nativity story in art

The stable is just outside the city walls, with the shepherds on the hill behind; Slovakia, c. 1490 Spisske Podhradie Narodenie (1490).jpg
The stable is just outside the city walls, with the shepherds on the hill behind; Slovakia, c. 1490

The scope of the subject matter which relates to the Nativity story begins with the genealogy of Jesus as listed in the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke. This lineage, or family tree is often depicted visually with a Tree of Jesse, springing from the side of Jesse, the father of King David.

Genealogy of Jesus

The New Testament provides two accounts of the genealogy of Jesus, one in the Gospel of Matthew and another in the Gospel of Luke. Matthew starts with Abraham, while Luke begins with Adam. The lists are identical between Abraham and David, but differ radically from that point. Matthew has twenty-seven generations from David to Joseph, whereas Luke has forty-two, with almost no overlap between the names on the two lists.⁠ Notably, the two accounts also disagree on who Joseph's father was: Matthew says he was Jacob, while Luke says he was Heli.

Tree of Jesse artistic theme, depiction of the ancestors of Christ

The Tree of Jesse is a depiction in art of the ancestors of Christ, shown in a tree which rises from Jesse of Bethlehem, the father of King David and is the original use of the family tree as a schematic representation of a genealogy. It originates in a passage in the biblical Book of Isaiah which describes metaphorically the descent of the Messiah, and is accepted by Christians as referring to Jesus. The various figures depicted in the lineage of Jesus are drawn from those names listed in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke.

The Gospels go on to relate that a virgin, Mary, was betrothed to a man Joseph, but before she became fully his wife, an angel appeared to her, announcing that she would give birth to a baby who would be the Son of God. This incident, referred to as the Annunciation is often depicted in art. Matthew's Gospel relates that an angel dispelled Joseph's distress at discovering Mary's pregnancy, and instructed him to name the child Jesus (meaning "God saves"). [1] This scene is depicted only occasionally.

Saint Joseph Christian saint; husband of Mary and stepfather of Jesus

Joseph is a figure in the canonical gospels who was married to Mary, Jesus' mother, and was Jesus' "legal" father. In the Apocrypha, Joseph was the father of James, Joses, Jude, Simon, and at least two daughters. According to Epiphanius and the apocryphal History of Joseph the Carpenter, these children were from a marriage which predated the one with Mary, a belief that is accepted by some select Christian denominations. Perspectives on Joseph as a historical figure are distinguished from a theological reading of the Gospel texts.

Angel Supernatural being in various religions and mythologies

An angel is generally a supernatural being found in various religions and mythologies. In Abrahamic religions, angels are often depicted as benevolent celestial beings who act as intermediaries between God or Heaven and humanity. Other roles of angels include protecting and guiding human beings, and carrying out God's tasks. Within Abrahamic religions, angels are often organized into hierarchies, although such rankings may vary between sects in each religion. Such angels are given specific names or titles, such as Gabriel or Michael. The term "angel" has also been expanded to various notions of spirits or figures found in other religious traditions. The theological study of angels is known as "angelology." Angels who were expelled from Heaven are referred to as fallen angels.

Son of God Wikimedia list article

Historically, many rulers have assumed titles such as son of God, son of a god or son of heaven.

In Luke's Gospel, Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem, the family of Joseph's ancestors, to be listed in a tax census; the Journey to Bethlehem is a very rare subject in the West, but shown in some large Byzantine cycles. [2] While there, Mary gave birth to the infant, in a stable, because there was no room available in the inns. At this time, an angel appeared to shepherds on a hillside, telling them that the "Saviour, Christ the Lord" was born. The shepherds went to the stable and found the baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the feed trough, or "manger", as the angel had described.

In the liturgical calendar, the Nativity is followed by the Circumcision of Christ on January 1, which is mentioned only in passing in the Gospels, [3] and which is assumed to have taken place according to Jewish law and custom, and the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (or "Candlemas"), celebrated on February 2, and described by Luke. [4] Both have iconographic traditions, not covered here.

The narrative is taken up in the Gospel of Matthew, and relates that "wise men" from the east saw a star, and followed it, believing it would lead them to a new-born king. On arriving in Jerusalem they proceed to the palace where a king might be found, and enquire from the resident despot, King Herod. Herod is worried about being supplanted, but he sends them out, asking them return when they have found the child. They follow the star to Bethlehem, where they give the child gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. The men are then warned in a dream that Herod wished to kill the child, and so return to their country another way. Although the gospel mentions neither the number nor the status of the wise men, known as "the Magi", tradition has extrapolated that since there were three gifts, there were three wise men, who are generally also given the rank of king, and so they are also called the "Three Kings". It is as kings that they are almost always depicted in art after about 900. [5] There are a number of subjects but the Adoration of the Magi, when they present their gifts, and, in Christian tradition, worship Jesus, has always been much the most popular.

Either the Annunciation to the Shepherds by the angel, or the Adoration of the Shepherds, which shows the shepherds worshipping the infant Christ, have often been combined with the Nativity proper, and the visit of the Magi, since very early times. The former represented the spreading of the message of Christ to the Jewish people, and the latter to the heathen peoples. [6]

Massacre of the Innocents, Codex Egberti, late 10th century. Kerald (Meister des Codex Egberti) 001.jpg
Massacre of the Innocents, Codex Egberti, late 10th century.

There are also many detailed series of artworks, ranging from stained glass to carved capitals to fresco cycles that depict every aspect of the story, which formed part of both of the two most popular subjects for cycles: the Life of Christ and the Life of the Virgin . It is also one of the Twelve Great Feasts of Eastern Orthodoxy, a popular cycle in Byzantine art.

The story continues with King Herod asking his advisers about ancient prophesies describing the birth of such a child. As a result of their advice, he sends soldiers to kill every boy child under the age of two in the city of Bethlehem. But Joseph has been warned in a dream, and flees to Egypt with Mary and the baby, Jesus. The gruesome scene of the Massacre of the Innocents, as the murder of the babies is generally referred, was particularly depicted by Early Renaissance and Baroque painters. The Flight into Egypt was another popular subject, showing Mary with the baby on a donkey, led by Joseph (borrowing the older iconography of the rare Byzantine Journey to Bethlehem).

Gothic toppling idol on the flight Toppling of the Pagan Idols (Bedford Master).jpg
Gothic toppling idol on the flight

From the 15th century in the Netherlands onwards, it was more usual to show the non-Biblical subject of the Holy Family resting on the journey, the Rest on the Flight to Egypt, often accompanied by angels, and in earlier images sometimes an older boy who may represent, James the Brother of the Lord, interpreted as a son of Joseph, by a previous marriage. [7] The background to these scenes usually (until the Council of Trent tightened up on such additions to scripture) includes a number of apocryphal miracles, and gives an opportunity for the emerging genre of landscape painting. In the Miracle of the Corn the pursuing soldiers interrogate peasants, asking when the Holy Family passed by. The peasants truthfully say it was when they were sowing their wheat seed; however the wheat has miraculously grown to full height. In the Miracle of the Idol a pagan statue falls from its plinth as the infant Jesus passes by, and a spring gushes up from the desert (originally separate, these are often combined). In further, less commonly seen, legends a group of robbers abandon their plan to rob the travellers, and a date palm tree bends down to allow them to pluck the fruit. [8]

Another subject is the meeting of the infant Jesus with his cousin, the infant John the Baptist, who, according to legend was rescued from Bethlehem before the massacre by the Archangel Uriel, and joined the Holy Family in Egypt. This meeting of the two Holy Children was to be painted many artists during the Renaissance period, after being popularized by Leonardo da Vinci and then Raphael. [9]

History of the Depiction

Early Christianity

Magi bearing gifts, 4th-century sarcophagus, Rome Adoration magi Pio Christiano Inv31459.jpg
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. [10] 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. [11]

4th-century sarcophagus, Milan; one of the earliest Nativity images 9821 - Milano - Sant'Ambrogio - Sarcofago di Stilicone - Foto Giovanni Dall'Orto 25-Apr-2007.jpg
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. [12] 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. [13]

Byzantine image

Modern Greek Orthodox mural in Jordan, using a depiction little changed in over a millennium. Mural - Birth of Christ.jpg
Modern Greek Orthodox mural in Jordan, 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. [14] Mary now lies recovering on a large stuffed cushion or couch ("kline" in Greek) beside the infant, who is on a raised structure, [15] whilst Joseph rests his head on his hand. [16] 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. [17]

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. [18]

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). [19]

Byzantine and Orthodox tradition

Late Byzantine tradition in Western Europe

Western image

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. Geertgen tot Sint Jans, The Nativity at Night, c 1490.jpg
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. [20]

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... [21]

After this the Virgin kneels to pray to her child, to be joined by Saint 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. [22]

This Nativity by Rogier van der Weyden, part of the Bladelin Altarpiece, follows Bridget's vision, with donor portrait and Romanesque ruins Pierre Bladelin Triptych central panel WGA.jpg
This Nativity by Rogier van der Weyden, part of the Bladelin Altarpiece, follows Bridget's vision, with donor portrait and Romanesque ruins

Saint Joseph, traditionally regarded as an old man, is often shown asleep in Nativities, and became 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. [23] 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, [24] 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 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 Saint 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. [25] 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. [26] In Italian works the architecture of such temples became classical, reflecting the growing interest in the ancient world. [27] 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. [28]


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 Magi St Andrews.JPG
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

Modern stained glass from the Taufkapelle, Koblenz-Arenberg Glasfenster Geburt Christi Arenberg.JPG
Modern stained glass from the Taufkapelle, Koblenz-Arenberg

See also


  1. Matthew:1:21. The name Jesus is the Biblical Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua meaning "God, our salvation".
  2. Schiller:58
  3. Luke 2:21
  4. The dates vary slightly between churches and calendars – see the respective articles. In particular, the Eastern Orthodox churches celebrate the visit of the Magi, as well as the Nativity, on December 25th of their liturgical calendar, which is January 7th of the usual Gregorian calendar.
  5. Schiller:105
  6. Schiller:60
  7. The subject only emerges in the second half of the 14th century. Schiller:124. In some Orthodox traditions the older boy is the one who protects Joseph from the "shepherd-tempter" in the main Nativity scene.
  8. Schiller:117–123. The date palm incident is also in the Quran. There are two different falling statue legends, one related to the arrival of the family at the Egyptian city of Sotina, and the other usually shown in open country. Sometimes both are shown.
  9. See, for example, Leonardo's Virgin of the Rocks
  10. Schiller:59
  11. Schiller:100
  12. 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
  13. Schiller:59–62
  14. 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
  15. 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
  16. Schiller:62-3
  17. Schiller:62–63
  18. 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.
  19. Ouspensky, Leonid; Lossky, Vladimir (1999), The Meaning of Icons (5th ed.), Crestwood NY: Saint Vladimir's Seminary Press, p. 159, ISBN   0-913836-99-0
  20. Schiller:74
  21. Quoted Schiller:78
  22. Schiller:76-8
  23. For example Schiller, figs. 173 & 175, both from Lower Saxony between 1170 and 1235, & fig. 183, 14th century German.
  24. from about 1400; apparently this detail comes from popular songs. Schiller:80
  25. Harthan, John, The Book of Hours,p.28 , 1977, Thomas Y Crowell Company, New York, ISBN   0-690-01654-9
  26. 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 Archived 2009-03-26 at the Wayback Machine
  27. Schiller:91-82
  28. 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.

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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