Since the beginning, Christian artists tended to reflect the theological developments that were going on at the time.
Before the Nativity theme, for example, it was the Adoration of the Magi that first appeared in the 3rd century. In the background, we find the Council of Nicea (325) which condemned the Arian heresy, a doctrine that denied Christ’s divinity.
Thus the feast of the Epiphany became a significant way to emphasize Christ’s royal and divine nature. The scene was also timely for the Christians living in a dominantly Pagan society in that the Magi were identified as Pagans who came to adore the Christian king.
(Sacrophagus, Vatican Museums. 3rd century)
(Panel from a Roman sarcophagus, 4th century CE. From the cemetery of St. Agnes in Rome. Source)
It was in the 4th century that artists began to represent the Nativity theme, that is the birth of the child Jesus. In the background, the dispute continued to be waged around Christ’s identity: Is He truly God? Is he truly man? Is He both? Echoing the orthodox decisions taken at the councils, the liturgical celebration of Christ’s Birth on the Feast of the Nativity answered that question: He is truly God and truly man.
Curiously, at the beginning, in addition to the Child Jesus, there were three main symbols: the donkey, the ox, and, most importantly, the manger. Nowadays we tend to associate the manger with the situation of poverty that surrounded Jesus’ birth. Early Christians, however, tended to highlight more the unity between Christ’s Paschal mystery (Passion, death, and resurrection) with Christ’s Incarnation. Christ became incarnate in order to free us from our sins and restore our life as sons and daughters of God. More than a symbol of poverty, the manger represented humankind’s sinful condition. Other paintings even replace the manger with a “tomb” as a sort of prediction of the death to come.
(Nativity scene. Detail from the side facing the apse of the so-called “Sarcofago di Stilicone” (“Stilicho’s sarcophagus”), an Ancient Roman Christian sarcophagus dating from the 4th century. It is preserved beneath the pulpit of Sant’Ambrogio basilica in Milan, Italy. Source)
Once separated from God, the true source of eternal life, man assumes animal-like characteristics. Like the ox and the donkey (the two animals mentioned in Is 1:3 e and Abacuc 3:2), they are forced to feed on “hay”. Dominated by the fears of death and the passing nature of his surroundings, man desperately seeks nourishment in that which is passing, banal, and superficial. Instead of God, we now content ourselves with egoistical gratifications that initially bear great promise and seduction, and yet inevitably leave us disappointed and even more empty that we were before. Separated from Life, man’s nourishes himself at the table of an ever-imminent death.
Through the Incarnation, The Son of God, stripping himself of his own divine glory (see Philip 2:5), comes to take this condition of sin and death upon himself. He comes make our “manger” his home. The manger is destroyed by His cross. God now reaches out once more to feed his beloved sons and daughter in the humble of the Bread of Life. Through his Passion and Resurrection, He offers us a new food to nourish us, his own body in the sacrament of the Eucharist.
So when did Mary take her place next to her son in Christian depictions of the nativity scene? It was in large part thanks to the second Ecumenical Council, the Council of Ephesus (431). In order to better clarify the human nature of Christ, the Council declared Mary to be the Theotokos (Θεός “God” and τόκος “childbirth), the true Mother of God. In saying that she was the true mother, the Council wanted to affirm that Christ underwent a truly human birth, thus confirming the integrity of his Incarnation. Although there are few exceptions, it was after this council that Mary became a fixture in the scene.
As an example, in celebration of the Council’s decision, just a year later in 432, we witness Mary depicted sitting next to the Child Jesus in the Arch of Triumph found in St. Mary the Maggiore Basilica.
3. Modern Day Conception of the Nativity Scene
While Oriental depictions tended to maintain the accent on the Christian doctrine, overtime –above all in the West – the more affectionate dimension began to prevail. If before it was rare to see Mary facing her Child, now Mary begins to express in her gaze and with her gestures a powerful sense of maternal tenderness and intimacy.
(Giotto, Nativity, from the Scrovegni Chapel, 1305. By © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro /, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52228569)
Here Giotto does something entirely new. “He presents us with human beings. How tenderly this mother places her baby in the manger, as the ox and ass look on. Mother and child make eye contact. They are related, connected. They are flesh and blood. Giotto gives us not the Virgin and Child, but Mary and her baby, Jesus” (Italy Magazine).
This turning point in Christian art took place in large part thanks to Saint Francis who, in 1223, decided to recreate the scene with live animals. It is there that the emotive power of the scene emerged in all of its vigor and the importance of Christ’ poverty and humility took the center stage.
Franciscan friar Thomas of Celano narrates the story.
[A]bout 15 days before the Nativity of the Lord, [Francis] said to [a friend in Greccio], “… For I would make memorial of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, and in some sort behold with bodily eyes His infant hardships; how He lay in a manger on the hay, with the ox and the ass standing by.”
There Simplicity was honored, Poverty exalted, Humility commended; and of Greccio there was made as it were a new Bethlehem. The night was lit up as the day, and was delightful to men and beasts … [Francis] stood before the manger, full of sighs, overcome with tenderness and filled with wondrous joy. The solemnities of Mass were celebrated over the manger, and the priest enjoyed a new consolation.
The idea caught on quickly. and in 1291 the first Franciscan pope (Nicholas IV) commissioned statues to create the first permanent Nativity scene in the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major (Aleteia).
*This post was based off the information found in Il Natale, written by Natasa Govekar.
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