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A Brief History of the Nativity Scene in Art

The earliest depiction of Mary with the Christ child can be found in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome in the 3rd Century C.E., (see below). Many art historians believe the concept of the Madonna and Child in Christian art was influenced by paintings and statuary of the ancient Egyptian goddess Isis and the divine child Horus, who represented the living god on earth in the guise of the current pharaoh.




The Nativity that we are familiar with today was first represented in the 4th century C.E., carved on an early Christian sarcophagus. (See below: Adoration of the Magi and the Nativity, from the Sarcophagus of Crispina. Stone sarcophagus lid. Mid-4th century. Museo Pio Cristiano, The Vatican.) Later the Nativity was included with other scenes from Christ’s life in monumental decoration of early Christian basilicas.


This early Christian version of the Nativity shows two versions in one with elements of the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. At left we see Mary with the Child greeting the Magi—wise men from the East who symbolize His revelation to the Gentiles. This follows the account of Matthew. The Virgin is seated to emphasize that the birth was painless. Notice, the Christ Child appears to be a toddler already!


On the right, following the Gospel of Luke, we see the Child in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger under the roof of a barnlike stable with an ox and ass whose mouths nearly touch the Child. At the right is a young shepherd carrying a staff. This iconography represents the revelation of Christ to the Jews.



In The Nativity by Guido da Siena, ca. 1275–80 (below), we see the Nativity taking place in a cave rather than a stable. We also see the baby Jesus being washed by two midwives to foreshadow his baptism. These conventions became standard in Eastern Orthodox Nativities. This work is done in the Byzantine style, the distinct form of Christian art that emerges during the Byzantine Empire around 500 C.E.. We see an elongation of figures, stylization of facial features and other elements, and movement away from the physical reality of Greco-Roman art toward abstraction and emphasis on the ethereal.




Coming full circle, we see the return to Greco-Roman influence at the dawn of the Renaissance . The Nativity (see below), by Giotto from The Arena Chapel in Padua is part of a cycle of frescoes showing the lives of Mary and Jesus. It is done in fresco and dates to 1305-06.


In the Late Medieval Italy, Giotto was a pioneer in pursuing a naturalistic approach to representing figures in space. Here, he revives the Classical tradition of showing volume in the figures and drapery, and depicts the first figures from behind since antiquity. Part of this return to the Classical in art, is an emphasis on the psychological: Joseph is not part of the intimacy between Mary and the Child, and angels express emotion. Giotto’s teacher, Cimabue, was a Byzantine painter, so Giotto combines Eastern and Western approaches: we see golden halos, and the setting is invaluable cave. He paved the way for the illusionism of the Renaissance.





The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard by Gerard David, 1510-15, is a prime example of the realism that dominates Christian imagery from the Renaissance through today, (see below). David was a Netherlandish oil painter during the Northern Renaissance period. David focuses attention on the mystery of the Incarnation—that is, Christ's birth and sacrifice for the redemption of humankind. Despite the joyful moment depicted, the figures all wear somber expressions, foreshadowing Christ’s eventual suffering and death. The sheaf of grain parallel to the manger refers to John 6:41: “I am the bread which came down from Heaven.”



I hope you have enjoyed this discussion. Keep posted for classes and lectures in 2023!

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