The Nativity of Jesus is drawn from accounts of Christ’s birth in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Following the Annunciation, Mary tells Joseph that she is with child and goes to visit her relative, Elizabeth, who is pregnant with John the Baptist. Just as the Annunciation tested Mary’s faith and character, so did her revealing of her pregnancy to Joseph. Mary’s divine pregnancy put Joseph in a very tough spot socially and culturally, and the proper thing to do to save face would be to call off the engagement. According to the Gospel of Luke, the couple travelled to Bethlehem to participate in the Roman census. It is here that Jesus is born in a stable because the inns in town had no vacancy, and it is here that he was wrapped in swaddling cloth and laid in a manger. According to Matthew, while in Bethlehem, an angel appeared to Joseph and told him to go through with his marriage to Mary. He also warns Joseph of the jealous King Herod, who wants to kill Jesus and plans to achieve this (since he doesn’t know which baby in his kingdom is the new King of the Jews) by killing all baby boys. The angel tells Joseph to flee into Egypt and stay there until it is safe to return to home, once Herod has died.
Art history and modern tradition tend to mix up or combine the accounts of the Nativity as they’re told in the Gospels. Luke doesn’t mention the Massacre of the Innocents or the flight into Egypt. Instead, according to Luke, Mary and Joseph are visited by shepherds in the stable, who admire the newborn king. Mary and Joseph eventually return home to Nazareth, but not before taking the eight-day-old Jesus to the Temple to be circumcised and blessed. It is in Matthew that we find Joseph’s dreams, the Massacre of the Innocents, the Adoration of the Magi (which includes a clever plot by Herod, who sent the Magi to be spies), the Flight into Egypt, and the return home to Nazareth, in Galilee. Many of the stories in each of these Gospels are extremely popular in art history, and still much iconography is drawn from legends and apocryphal gospels.
Artists have presented the stories found in Luke and Matthew, especially the Adorations of the Magi and Shepherds, in many different ways. For this reason, I’ve included a gallery at the end of this post so you can see the vast array of differing modes of representation. I want to focus on a couple paintings from each motif. Feel free to read the Nativity story for yourself in Luke and Matthew, and then take a look at the gallery of images below and think about how artists’ representations differ or are similar to the actual text behind these themes!
In mid-fifteenth century Florence, Fra Angelico and Fra Filipo Lippi collaborated on The Adoration of the Magi. The National Gallery has a truly wonderful description and explanation of this artwork, and I encourage you to give it a read. The painting
… focuses on the delicate moment when [the Magi] arrive to kneel before the infant, who would, Christians believe, become king of all. This joyous event known as the Epiphany symbolizes the recognition of Christ by the pagan world. … [The] surging activity [in the painting] resolves itself in one quiet, tender moment in the foreground where a mighty king in a robe of the palest rose leans forward to kiss the infant’s tiny foot.”
The entire painting, rich with Renaissance symbolism, can be seen as an analogy of the glory of the newfound Christ and the restoration of the world through Him. Indeed, the importance of the Nativity was not lost on Catholicism. The Tridentine Catechism cautions believers:
We must also take care, that these singular blessings rise not in judgment against us; that, as at Bethlehem, the place of his nativity, he was denied a dwelling; so also, now that he is no longer born in human flesh, he be not denied a dwelling in our hearts, which he may be spiritually born: for, through an earnest desire for our salvation, this is the object of his most anxious solicitude. As then, by the power of the Holy Ghost, and in a manner superior to the order of nature, he was made man and was born, was holy and even holiness itself; so does it become our duty to ‘be born, not of blood nor the will of flesh, but of God’ … Thus shall we reflect some faint image of the holy conception and nativity of the Son of God, which are the objects of our firm faith, and believing which we revere and adore ‘in a mystery, wisdom of God which was hidden.’ (Donovan, p. 42)
El Greco’s 1612-14 painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds presents a much more simplistic representation of the wonder of the newborn king. That is, it lacks the complex symbols found in Fra Angelo and Filipo Lippi’s painting. True to form, El Greco separates the heavenly and earthly realm but highlights the divine nature of Jesus through an impressive burst of light. Mary sits in quiet, still adoration as the shepherds physically react to the holy baby, their bodies twisting and hands raised in excite movement. The angels join in the celebration. In this way, the heavens and the earth are combined; joined by their mutual adoration of the Christ child.
My favorite depiction of the Flight into Egypt (including the motif of the Rest on the Flight into Egypt) is Annibale Carracci’s 1603 painting. Carracci was Caravaggio’s arch-enemy, but I can’t help but love this painting. Mary tenderly holds onto her newborn child and Joseph follows. She stops and looks back at him. The painting is a picturesque landscape, invoking a sense of calm, and placing the Holy Family front and center. Mary and Joseph are calm despite fleeing danger, perhaps because they know that they are obeying the directive from heaven.
In Murillo’s Rest on the Flight to Egypt, Joseph, in contrast to Carracci’s depiction, is a young(er) man. As I said in Baroque Spain: Devotion on Canvas, “[e]arly Spain was very devoted to Joseph, and glorified him as the embodiment of the perfect father.” Typical of Murillo’s work and in line with Spanish ideology, the Holy Family are a humbly depicted. By doing so, “Murillo made … Mary and Joseph’s perfection, obtained by and through God, accessible to any normal Baroque Spanish parent who might so desire to be a better pious parent.” The infant Jesus is peacefully sleeping and small putti appear, joining in the adoration as the baby rests.
Images of the Nativity were meant to begin a train of thought in the viewer as to Christ’s faithfulness to leave his heavenly home and come to earth as a lowly human. Hebrews, the Tridentine Catechism (discussed above), and St. Ignatius all remind the pious to remember Christ’s lowly birth and its significance to the faith. In Hebrews 2:1-10, the author gently reminds to be diligent in remembering the cornerstones of their faith:
Therefore ought we more diligently to observe the things which we have heard, lest perhaps we should let them slip. For if the word, spoken by angels, became steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just recompense of reward: How shall we escape if we neglect so great salvation? which having begun to be declared by the Lord, was confirmed unto us by them that heard him. God also bearing them witness by signs, and wonders, and divers miracles, and distributions of the Holy Ghost, according to his own will. For God hath not subjected unto angels the world to come, whereof we speak.
But one in a certain place hath testified, saying: What is man, that thou art mindful of him: or the son of man, that thou visitest him? Thou hast made him a little lower than the angels: thou hast crowned him with glory and honour, and hast set him over the works of thy hands: Thou hast subjected all things under his feet. For in that he hath subjected all things to him, he left nothing not subject to him. But now we see not as yet all things subject to him. But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour: that, through the grace of God, he might taste death for all. For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, who had brought many children into glory, of their salvation, by his passion.
Centuries later, St. Ignatius wrote instructions for the faithful to contemplate the Nativity. The contemplations’ goal is to
[make] myself a poor creature and a wretch of an unworthy slave, looking at them [the Holy Family] and serving their needs, with all possible respect and reverence, as if I found myself present; then to reflect on myself in order to draw some profit.
As you can see, humbleness is a key theme surrounding the ideology of the Nativity. The pious are called to humble themselves as Christ humbled himself; to serve as he served; and, perhaps most importantly, through art — to stand in awe of His miraculous birth and life as the Shepherds and Magi did centuries before. Art is a tool of wonder. It serves an emotional and didactic purpose: to present the faithful with the Nativity motif in such a way that it is memorial, overwhelming, and awe-inspiring.
… [B]ehold an angel of the Lord stood by them, and the brightness of God shone round about them; and they feared with a great fear… And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people: For, this day, is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God, and saying: Glory to God in the highest; and on earth peace to men of good will.