The History of the Nativity Scene in Art

Adoarion of the Magi - Leonardo da Vinci
Adoration of the Magi - Leonardo da Vinci
Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci

One of the most popular and notable Christmas scenes in the public eye is the Nativity scene – the birth of Jesus in the manger. While Christmas is a mostly secular tradition nowadays, the date is inextricably linked through its religious history. The name of the date itself refers to “Christ’s Mass,” and has only truly lost its religious nature in the past few decades.

Since the fourth century, Christians from various parts of the world have been celebrating and immortalizing the birth of Jesus in many different artistic media, from sculptures and carvings to paintings, and this story has had a deep impact on these cultures that has resonated for more than a millennia. This artistic history is relevant not only because of the historical nature of the work, but also the creators themselves: among others, we are lucky to still have the works of Da Vinci, Botticelli, Rubens, Richter and more, who have lent their talents towards this religiously significant story.

We begin before Constantine signed legislation for Christian worship, prior to the 4th century CE.

Early Depictions of the nativity scene

The earliest findings we have concerning the narrative of Jesus’s birth come from inscriptions on sarcophagi found in Rome and Southern Gaul. These depictions appear in Rome’s ancient catacombs, for example, where early persecuted Christians buried their dead. The stories include the narrative of the Magi coming to honor the birth of Jesus, and the nativity itself, with the newborn prophet nestled between animals. Interesting to note here is that this imagery was very close to the tribute-bearer imagery of the Mediterranean and Middle-eastern cultures that dated from millennia previously.

Nativity Scene - The Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus from San Giacomo in Settimiana, ca. 330 Via della Lungara, National Museum, Rome
Nativity Scene – Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus from San Giacomo in Settimiana, ca. 330 Via della Lungara, Museo Nazionale, Rome

There is an interesting simplicity and story-telling structure to these images, all while keeping the core of the story intact. While simple, these inscriptions and carvings were one of the few ways beyond an oral tradition that the ancient people had to relay this information, and through them, the story of the Nativity – from the angel coming down to Mary, to the birth in the manger — could be kept and safeguarded for future generations to understand.
The depiction of the Nativity scene has also moved to other cultures, such as the Byzantine cultures, that formed their own interpretations of the story and incorporated them into their own schema. Instead of the classical manger, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, for instance, posits that Jesus was birthed in a cave or grotto, and, in fact, lies underneath the church itself. Murals in such churches have been recognized as being over a millennia old and continue the story in a direction that is uncommon for our western narrative.

Church of the Nativity scene in cave in Bethlehem
Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem depicts that Jesus was born in a cave and not a manger

The Middle Ages

“Nativity at Night” by Geertgen tot Sint Jans
“Nativity at Night” by Geertgen tot Sint Jans – National Gallery, London

Taking from both the Byzantine and the Roman depictions of the Nativity scene, artists in this era tended to prefer the stable to the cave, but still heavily incorporated both western and near-eastern elements into their work. One such omission, for instance, is the lack of midwives from the western tradition due to the disapproval of the Latin theologians at the time. One famous depiction is the 1490 composition entitled, “Nativity at Night” by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. This piece is reportedly influenced by the vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden, who would describe a vision of the baby messiah, emitting light like the sun:

“I saw the child in [Mary’s] womb move and suddenly in a moment she gave birth to her son, from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendour, that the sun was not comparable to it, nor did the candle that St. Joseph had put there, give any light at all, the divine light totally annihilating the material light of the candle.”

This vision would be integral to the depictions of the Nativity scene at the time, giving artists a brilliantly powerful image on which to base their artworks.
With the use of this image as a centerpiece, artists would also take to utilizing the chiaroscuro style as well to further illustrate and emphasize the light of the messiah in relation to its surroundings. Michael Sittow’s “Nativity at Night” is an example of this technique in relation to its subject matter. By utilizing the technique, Sittow is able to bring an even greater emphasis onto the newborn in the crib, with the adoring and astonished onlookers looking on in rapture. The angels themselves, shrouded in Jesus’s light, look humbled in comparison.
These two examples of the nativity’s depiction at this time are not only powerful interpretations of not only the biblical tale, but of St. Bridget herself, but also show the brilliant techniques at use during that time period, which can easily be compared to figures such as Rembrandt in terms of style.

The Renaissance and Beyond

Adoration of the Shepherds by Caravaggio
Nativity scene – Adoration of the Shepherds by Caravaggio

In an interesting shift from the birth itself, this time became increasingly more interested in the story of the Magi – perhaps because during this time of intellectual and social change, the figure of the wise man in the Nativity scene became a more pressing and pertinent image than the one of Jesus himself. One such enduring masterpiece is the “Procession of the Magi” by Gozzoli. This stunning fresco is a part of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence and is one of many frescos painted by the Italian master. This piece is an interpretation of the three Magi on their way to Bethlehem to herald the birth of Jesus and to see the nativity for themselves. Of course, not only is this a painting of the story itself, but Gozzoli also decided to paint portraits of the Medici family as well.

Caravaggio also lent his talents towards the story of the nativity, composing a realistic treatment of the tale with his “Adoration of the Shepherds.” This Nativity scene was ordered by the Senate of Messina and a calm, humble representation pervades the composition. During this time, Caravaggio had been composition his subjects with an almost heightened spiritual awareness – by bucking the Renaissance trend of decorative, detailed backgrounds, Caravaggio lent a solemnity to his characters by foregrounding them against vast, empty backgrounds. This is very fitting for this particular subject matter – the importance of the story of Jesus demands the intimacy of the moment and not the distraction of the world around it.

Later Culture and Contemporary Depictions

The story of the Nativity has a lasting influence on our culture since it has been in continuous telling ever since the sarcophagi in Rome. Since the Renaissance, the tale has been told through a variety of forms, including plays (which remarkably date from medieval to contemporary), to literature, such as Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, a novel by Lewis Wallace written in 1880 and even including Operas and musicals.
One of the most famous and critically acclaimed retellings of this story is the 1959 production of Ben-Hur starring Charlton Heston. At the time, this epic masterpiece was the largest budget movie (also boasting the largest sets) at $15.175 million dollars (well over $120 million in 2016 dollars). The story revolves around a wealthy prince and merchant living in Jerusalem, Judah Ben-Hur, who eventually sees the trial and crucifixion of Jesus.
Another pivotal cultural appreciation of the nativity story is the song, “The Little Drummer Boy,” which can still be heard over the radio to this very day. This song is an exceptionally popular Christmas song, written by Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941 and relates the story of a poor young boy who is summoned by the Magi to the nativity. Without a gift to give the infant Christ, the boy plays his drum and is given approval by the Virgin Mary.

An Enduring Mythos

The story of the birth of Jesus has been a part of western culture for millennia and it’s showing no signs of leaving us. While western culture is more secular than ever, and becoming more so by the day, our vestigial cultural relics are still alive and well in our narratives, especially around Christmas itself.
The majority of carols, for instance, directly reference this Christian story, and indeed their roots can be traced back to Latin hymns dating to the 4th century Rome. It is clear that the Christmas tradition has been an influential force for artistic history, for we still sing them to this day – many of the traditional Christmas songs are directly influenced by the nativity scene, from the angels speaking to Mary to the coming of the Magi themselves.

Of course, celebrating Christmas is no longer secluded to the west, with countries around the world practicing the religion – even non-Christian areas. Japan in particular, while there is only a small Christian population, has adopted the gift-giving, the decorations using their traditional Kokeshi dolls to set up the Nativity Scene, and even the Christmas tree itself as a yearly tradition.

Nativity Scene -Kokeshi dolls
Nativity Scene in Japan featuring Kokeshi dolls

It is interesting to see the evolution of the nativity and Christmas itself as we progress through time. From its humble depictions on the side of masonry to its heavily commercialized, secular, modern interpretations, this story has endured from the ancient times and will most likely stretch into our future.

Merry Christmas!

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