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Holiday Art History

The Nativity scene was first represented in the 4th century, carved on early Christian sarcophagi, and was later included with other scenes from Christ’s life in monumental decoration of early Christian basilicas.

The Incarnation of Christ  held great importance as a subject of early Christian Art because it emphasized the physical reality of the Divine in human form and the validity of the Virgin’s newly established title of Theotokos. In Greek the name means God-bearer. At left, we see an opulent apse mosaic of Theotokos found in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey, ca. 867.

Dating to the 2nd or 3rd Century, the portrayal shown at left from the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome is considered the first example of the Nativity scene, with Mary possibly nursing the infant Jesus, although scholars debate this idea. The Biblical foreign prophet Balaam shown in the upper left points to a star outside the frame. He could be included to represent the Magi.

The New Testament doesn’t specifically state that the baby Jesus was born in a stable. Luke 2:7 recounts that Mary “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” The earliest Christians located the manger in a cave. The Church of the Nativity, which dates to the 4th century, was built over the cave in Bethlehem where the birth traditionally was believed to have taken place.

In early Christian art the cave was the setting for Nativity scenes. In the above example of The Nativity by Guido da Siena, ca. 1275–80, the newborn Christ appears at the mouth of a deep cave to symbolize His descent into the very depth of the human condition. The use of the cave has continued in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Italian nativities often picture a grotto. We also see the baby Jesus being washed by a midwife to foreshadow His baptism. This became standard in Eastern Orthodox Nativities.

In the Late Medieval Italy, the artist Giotto was a pioneer in pursuing a naturalistic approach to representing figures in space. Above, in his 1305-06 fresco in the Arena Chapel, he revives the Classical tradition of showing volume in the figures and drapery and depicts the first figures from behind since antiquity. Joseph is isolated below, physically and psychologically outside the intimacy between Mary and the Child.

Wishing you a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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