As we draw nearer to Christmas, we might look around and note that homes in cities around the globe are suddenly alight with lights of every imaginable colour and decked with festive decorations in shades of red, green and gold. Amidst the familiar Santas, reindeers, and garlands that appear with frequency amongst our holiday decor, and which reflect the secular aspects that have come to be associated with Christmas, there are other displays which are more closely associated with the Christian roots of this holiday, notably the inclusion of angels, doves, and the accustomed star atop the Christmas tree. There is one scene, however, that is so central to the Christian roots of this holiday that the replication of its central event has become a fixture of Christmas décor in many Christians homes – that is, the Nativity (or the birth of Christ). In contemporary Christianity, this scene is typically expressed through the visual recreation of the moments after Jesus’ birth in which his mother (the Virgin Mary) and Joseph stand on either side of a manger that bears the infant Jesus. The Holy Family is often flanked by the Three Wise Men, a shepherd, sheep (or lambs), and an angel, while the star of Bethlehem shines brightly overhead, announcing His birth (Figure 1).
These contemporary artistic renditions of the event naturally draw from the Nativity stories recounted in the Bible, but we must note that only two of the four canonical gospels actually refer to the birth of Jesus, notably Matthew and Luke. The Gospel of Matthew briefly recounts the story of the Nativity, noting Mary’s miraculous virginal conception as foretold by the archangel Gabriel (1.18-2.23), followed immediately by the Adoration of the Magi (2.11); there is, however, no reference to His birth in Bethlehem. The Gospel of Luke (2.1-20), on the other hand, provides a more detailed account of the Nativity and much of our contemporary visual references for this scene come from his account, including a reference to the manger and an angel appearing to a group of shepherds; there is no reference to the Magi here. Thus, our modern conceptualization of the event draws from both accounts, borrowing the manger and shepherds from Luke and the Magi and guiding star from Matthew.
Artistic renditions of the Nativity are not limited, however, to contemporary Christianity; in fact, we can trace this iconography back to the late third or early fourth century CE. The relatively late appearance of such a central Christian scene within the visual repertoire of early Christianity might seem odd initially, but we must remember that Christianity was not an officially sanctioned religion within the Roman Empire until the reign of Constantine in the fourth century. Many of its earliest adherents were forced to worship in secret and faced sporadic persecution from Rome’s various emperors. As such, there is no extant evidence for any Christian images before 200 CE. When Christians do begin to create a distinct iconography in the third century, it is perhaps unsurprising, then, that these images appear in relatively inconspicuous contexts, such as the Roman catacombs, and on sarcophagi and personal items. We must highlight, however, that the earliest Christian images largely relied on stories from the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament), such as Jonah and the Whale (Figure 2) and Daniel and the lion’s den. At this time the New Testament – at least as a defined collection of texts – did not yet exist.
That is not to say that third- and fourth-century Christians were unaware of the gospels – these texts would have circulated amongst early Christian communities in one fashion or another. And scenes from the New Testament certainly find their way into the visual repertoire of the faithful in the third and fourth centuries, especially in the catacombs. The Good Shepherd – that is, Jesus carrying a lamb around his neck to represent his flock – is perhaps the most popular among them, but scenes of the Nativity also figure into the early Christian artistic tradition. In its earliest iterations, the Nativity differs substantially from the modern renditions of the scene, favouring the account of Matthew and omitting any reference to the manger. Instead, the first visual accounts of this scene highlight the interaction between a seated Mary, who holds the infant Jesus in her lap, and the three Magi, one of whom often points towards a star; no other characters take part in the scene (Figure 3).
What is more, the earliest images of the Nativity emphasize the movement of the Magi towards the infant Jesus and they typically form the central part of the scene (Harley and McGowan 2016). While the shift in focus away from Mary and Jesus may seem strange to the modern viewer, these early images are drawing on contemporary Greek and Roman iconographic forms to create these new Christian images. In this case, the artists are seemingly borrowing postures from Roman imperial ceremony or Graeco-Roman gift-giving practices (Grabar 1968 and Jensen 2015). The focus, however, would squarely shift to Jesus in the fourth century, particularly in the Latin West, while the seated Mary and Child became central in the Byzantine and Coptic traditions (these appear slightly later).
Early compositions of the Nativity are not only influenced by contemporary Greek and Roman artistic forms, but also by differing accounts of the Nativity itself. As we already know, there were two varying accounts of the Nativity that were included in the New Testament, but the story is also recounted in a number of apocryphal gospels – that is, gospels that were not officially sanctioned by the church – including the Protoevangelium of James (second century CE at the latest), the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (dated, at the earliest, to the sixth century) and the later De Nativitate Mariae (probably ninth century in date). In most instances, these texts relate the familiar tradition of the Nativity, although new details are added to build on the relative paucity of information regarding the birth of Christ provided by the canonical gospels; in this sense, they are fuller accounts of the event, many of which adopt the Virgin Mary as their primary focus.
The earliest overt references to the apocrypha in paleo-Christian art occur in the late-fourth and early-fifth centuries and they also mark the introduction of the manger into the artistic vocabulary of the scene, notably the inclusion of an ox and ass at the stable during the Nativity. The scene directly references Pseudo-Matthew 14 (assuming an earlier version was circulating) and in some cases the child appears alone, flanked only by the ox and ass (Figure 4), while other iterations include some of the central figures to the event. This particular component of the Nativity story from Pseudo-Matthew remained influential into the Renaissance (Figure 5) and it still finds its way into Nativity scenes around the globe today.
The Protoevangelium of James, on the other hand, introduces a far more interesting variation of the Nativity account, in which Salome, an associate of an unnamed midwife (sometimes referred to as a midwife herself), rejects her midwife companion’s claims that a virgin has given birth to a son. As a result, she is resolved to conduct a “trial” to reveal Mary’s deceit, notably to test whether Mary’s hymen is still intact. After conducting her test, her hand begins to fall off, as if burned by fire. An angel then appears to her and tells her to touch the infant Jesus, and she is miraculously healed – this is Jesus’ first miracle. It should be noted that while Salome appears in Christian art from the sixth century onwards, the more gruesome elements of her story are always omitted. Instead, she typically appears next to Mary and the Child, bearing witness to his miraculous birth (Figure 6). Salome appears much more frequently in Coptic and Eastern Orthodox iconography, but she is not excluded from the imagery stemming from the Latin West (ex. sixth-century cathedra of Ravenna’s Bishop Maximian).
So, this Christmas, when you put up your Nativity scenes in your home or drive past an installation of it on the lawn of your neighbourhood church, take note of the changes this scene has undergone since its first appearance in Rome. Perhaps you’ll spy an ox and an ass in the midst, like this Nativity display in Montreal (Figure 7), or perhaps you’ll notice Salome’s enduring presence on Medieval Orthodox icons of the Nativity. Nevertheless, we can see the lasting legacy of the varying gospel and apocryphal accounts of Jesus’ birth and the evolving nature of our collective visual understanding of this biblical event.
Grabar, André. (1968). Christian Iconography: A Study of its Origins. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Cartlidge, David R. and J. Keith Elliott. 2001. Art and the Christian Apocrypha. New York: Routledge.
Harley, Felicity and McGowan, Andrew. (2016) “The Magi and the Manger: Imaging Christmas in Ancient Art and Ritual,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 2. Available at: http://ismreview.yale.edu
Higgins, Sabrina, C. 2017-2019. “Between Catacomb and Sanctuary: The Creation, Diffusion and Elaboration of the Iconography of the Virgin Mary in Late Antique Egypt,” Eastern Christian Art 11: 17-35.
Jensen, Robin M. 2015. “The Apocryphal Mary in Early Christian Art”, in A. Gregory and C. Tuckett (eds), The Oxford Handbook of Early Christian Apocrypha, 289-305. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jensen, Robin M. 2015. “Allusions to Imperial Rituals in Fourth-Century Christian Art,” in Lee Jefferson and Robin M. Jensen (eds), The Art of Empire: Christian Art in its Imperial Context, 15–24. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
Dr. Higgins is the Assistant Professor of Aegean and Mediterranean Societies and Cultures at Simon Fraser University, where she is cross-appointed between the departments of Humanities and Archaeology. Her research stands at the intersection of Art History, Archaeology, Religious Studies, Papyrology and Gender Studies, with a primary focus on the material culture of early Christian cults in late antique Egypt, especially the cults of the Virgin Mary and St. Thecla. She was recently awarded a Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council Insight Development Grant for her project, “The Early Cult of the Virgin and the Hegemony of the Text”. In addition to this research, Dr. Higgins is an active field archaeologist. She is currently the Assistant Director of the excavations at Golemo Gradište, a late antique basilica in the Republic of North Macedonia, and a co-investigator on the Temple of Isis Graffiti Project, Philae, Egypt.