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The Origin of the Nativity Scene

by Denise Laurin

Adoration of the Magi and the Nativity,

from the Sarcophagus of Crispina. Stone sarcophagus lid. Mid-4th century. Museo Pio Cristiano, The Vatican


As we begin the season that celebrates the return of the light to the world, known as the solstice to ancient people and embodied in Jesus Christ as the Light of the World to Christians, let’s explore the early iconography of the Nativity scene.

The depiction of the Nativity primarily draws from the two Gospels that mention the event, Luke and Matthew. The example shown here is an early Christian version in the style of late Roman art from the mid-4th century CE. It is a blend of some details from both accounts into one composite image.

From Matthew’s account, we see the Virgin seated to emphasize that the birth was painless, (far left). She greets the Wise Men, or Magi, from the East who symbolize Christ’s revelation to the Gentiles. Just right of center, the Child is shown wrapped in swaddling clothes (pieces of cloth secured with bandages), and lying in a manger (a trough for feeding animals). Mary is absent in this early representation, but by the end of the 5th century she is always found at the manger. The appearance of the shepherd carrying a staff symbolizes the revelation of Christ to the Jews, and could anticipate the concept of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. These details coincide with Matthew‘s account.

Above the manger, we see the stable with a tiled roof and wooden supports. An ox and ass worship the Child fulfilling the prophecy from Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.” These details are reflected in Luke’s account.

In modern portrayals, Mary kneels with her hands folded in prayer. This approach reflects the influence of Medieval Franciscan writings and the mystical visions of St. Bridget, and are not directly from the Gospels.

I hope you have enjoyed this look into the origin and development of the Nativity from early Christian art. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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