The Christmas Story in Art

Guest post by Dr Chris Davies

Paintings of The Feast of the Nativity, The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Adoration of the Magi

The Feast of the Nativity

The most challenging task for any artist seeking to represent Christ is how to depict his dual nature, human yet fully divine. Christian art is above all theology in visual form but there are few fixed positions. Generally the paintings invoke the gospels of St Luke and St Matthew. In Roman times great importance was placed on a festival honouring the winter solstice by pagans, the winter solstice heralded the rising of the unconquered sun (dies natalis Solis invicti).

The origins of the Nativity can be traced back to 327 when Constantine built a grand basilica in Bethlehem to honour the site, a cave, where it was argued Mary had given birth to Christ, marking the beginnings of the Feast of the Nativity and conflated this religious feast with the winter solstice and the festival of the goddess Isis. For early Christians the new sun symbolised the risen Christ and the promise of eternal life.

Initially early Christians conflated the Feast of the Nativity with earlier pagan festivals, celebrating the Nativity on the 6th January, the date on which Christ revealed three times his divinity: the first time when the Magi acknowledged Jesus as God with the appearance of the star, the second time when John the Baptist baptised Christ and the third time when Christ performed his first miracle when he changed water into wine at the wedding at Cana. The early Christian church called this the Epiphany. But during the 4th century important theological adaptations to practice occurred when Western Christianity separated the observance of Christ’s birth from the Epiphany by declaring that the Feast of the Nativity takes place on the 25th December and identified the Adoration of the Magi with the Feast of the Epiphany on the 6th January, twelve days after Christmas.

Depictions of the Nativity have been a major subject for artists since the fourth century.

4th-century sarcophagus, Milan

According to scripture the Christ Child is surrounded by Mary, Joseph and other religious figures; with their importance denoted by glowing halos. On the background are four angels, a cow, a donkey and guests. The meaning of each element in art of the Nativity is speculative, open to interpretation; for instance the two beasts at the manger have been ascribed numerous meanings. Some theologians claim that they are the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy ‘that the ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master’s crib (Isaiah 1:3), others interpret them as representatives of the Jews and the Gentiles, with the ox the attribute for the former, who ‘were yoked to the law’ and the ass for the latter, who ‘bore the burden’ of idolatry.

Early paintings of the Nativity tended to follow the Eastern interpretation of the birth of Christ, where the setting is a cave, frequently incorporated into a shed or a basic covering. The baby Jesus is positioned on some form of cloth and placed directly on the ground or within the building, following the text of St Luke. But the actual setting of Christ’s birth is not clearly stated in the Gospels except one is told that Mary ‘laid him (Jesus) in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn’.

Giotto – The Nativity

Nativity Giotto
Giotto de Bondone, Nativity, 1305, Fresco Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy.

Giotto de Bondone’s painting of the Nativity conforms to the Eastern tradition. In Byzantine art, the birth of Christ traditionally took place in a cave, but Giotto places his Nativity in a shed. Moreover, Giotto’s painting differs greatly from earlier Byzantine depictions of the Nativity, which were less realistic and more stylised, Giotto’s fresco is naturalistic, with each element of the composition appearing realistic, figures far from idealised and livestock that one would actually observe in the landscape. His composition has been carefully considered, for instance, by painting figures facing away from the viewer recessional space is created. The composition oozes energy and movement. The shed, a novel feature, appears to float above a somewhat indistinct rocky terrain, reminiscent of folded fabric and the five angels energise the top third of the fresco moving from left to right, which creates pictorial dynamism.

Adhering to theological conventions at the time, Mary is depicted as haven experienced a painful birth, being supported in childbirth by the presence to the left of the shed a midwife gently holding Jesus. This depiction symbolises and undermines the miraculous aspect of the birth of Christ but Giotto’s subtle depiction of emotion suggests more. The expression on Mary’s face is one of sadness and reflection, it can be posited that this anticipates the death of Jesus at a relatively early age.

Unlike other paintings at the time of the Nativity Giotto has added an ass and an ox. Theologians and art historians dispute the reason for this; one feasible view is that the ass represents the Old Testament and the ox the Old Testament. Giotto’s depiction of the livestock that eat, breathe and move like real farm animals that have wandered in for sustenance.

Byzantine Nativity scene from the Karanilik Kilise (or the Dark Church) in Goreme, Turkey.


By the middle of the 14th century the Nativity and the Adoration of the Child were deemed one of the same in Western Christianity. Depictions show the Virgin kneeling to admire the new-born child, after a painless, joyful birth, usually within a dilapidated wooden structure. This reading can be attributed to two important theological texts: The Meditations of Pseudo-Bonaventure and Revelations by the fourteenth century mystic, Saint Bridget of Sweden. According to Pseudo-Bonaventure, Mary’s birth was painless and leaning against a column she saw Jesus resting on a pile of hay and after wrapping him in a cloth she put him in the manger and knelt before him with Joseph, the ox and the ass. Angels appeared in the sky. Saint Bridget recorded her visions: whilst meditating at the cave of the Nativity Saint Bridget claims that she witnessed Mary taking off a white mantle, dropping it on the ground and after removing her veil knelt, extended her hands heaven-wards, stood up and miraculously viewed the Christ Child lying on her mantle. Joseph, an onlooker brought a lit candle into the manger but which was immediately extinguished by the celestial light emanating from Jesus, ‘such an ineffable light and splendour that the sun was not comparable with it, nor did the candle that Saint Joseph held there shine any light at all, the Divine light totally annihilating the natural light of the candle’.

Fra Angelico – The Nativity

Fra Angelico was both an artist and friar. In his early twenties he received Holy Orders and between the ages of 13-22 was at the Dominican friary of Cortona before transferring to the Convent of San Domenico in Fiesole where he stayed for eighteen years before moving to the Friary of San Marco in Florence. His artistic talent was soon recognised and he began his artistic career in his early twenties. In Lives of the Artists Vasari noted ‘his rare and perfect talent’. Throughout his life Fra Angelico painted several versions of The Nativity including a fresco for the Basilica di San Marco in Florence. But one of his most accomplished paintings of The Nativity dates from 1425. A devotional painting, measuring 30cm by 15cm, it encapsulates great simplicity and piety and has been carefully composed. The triangular sloping roof of the shed, the vertical poles and grid-like sidewalls, with the Virgin Mary and Joseph contained within this space creates perfect harmony and balance. Five angels, rendered in lapis lazuli, sit atop the roof. To the right the shape of the Tuscan Hills mirrors the roof. Mary, dressed in a rust red gown, golden hair tucked in behind her head, with her hands joined in prayer, and Joseph, dressed in purple – aged, lined features, grey beard- a blue scarf covering his head, arms spread, their focus on the radiant Christ Child resting direct on the ground; a sense of wonder prevails. Golden halos surround the heads of Mary and Joseph with a radiant light issuing from Jesus. A cow and an ass look on. On the hillside two shepherds gaze in wonderment, sky-wards.

Pierro Della Francesca – The Nativity

Pierro Della Francesca, The Nativity 1470-75, oil on poplar, The National Gallery, London

This is a simple rendition of the Nativity, a painting without embellishment, painted by Pierro della Francesca between 1470 and 1475, to hang in a private chapel in the family palace in his hometown of Sansepolcro, which can be viewed in the far distance. A ramshackled skewed shed, a metaphor for the precarious nature of the birth of Jesus, frames the narrative. The composition was inspired by one of the visions of Saint Bridget, where the Virgin Mary spreads out her cloak to protect the new-born child, the pose of the Virgin Mary was true to Saint Bridget’s vision. Mary, dressed in blue, her face covered with a veil, adorned with a pearl headress and necklace kneels, hands joined in prayer. Standing behind Mary are two shepherds and Joseph seated on an ass’s saddle. Six angels playing lutes and in song stand, in classical poses, behind Jesus and to the left of Mary. Two birds, a silent magpie on the roof of the shed, and a goldfinch, a symbol of the Passion.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans – The Nativity at Night

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, The Nativity at Night, 1490, oil on oak panel, 1490, The National Gallery, London

Nativity at Night is a small picture, measuring only 34.5 by 25 cms. This would suggest that it was intended as a private devotional painting, a painting designed to be hung in a private chapel. It reflects the theological position adopted by Thomas à Kempis in his Imitation of Christ, a text popular in northern Netherlands. Kempis encouraged private prayer and mediation on the life of Christ as a means of drawing closer to God. In this painting Sint Jans focuses on the imagery of Christ as light or the light, ‘the true light, which lighteth every man’ (John 1:9). The focus is on the Christ Child, naked, arms folded, resting in a stone crib, light radiating outwards, illuminating Mary, the five angels with ‘such an ineffable light and splendour that the sun was not comparable with it’, a light more powerful and illuminating than the light from the fire on the hill beyond. Joseph stands in the shadows and an angel, radiantly lit, floats across the skyline. To reinforce the power of Christ, the cow and ass, exaggerated in scale by Sint Jans, nevertheless appear insignificant. The relative interior darkness, beyond ‘the true light’ suggests the mystery of the Incarnation and the stems of corn, barely visible in the darkness and in reproduction, is a timely reminder that Jesus was sent into the world not only to be the light but also to become the ‘bread of life’.

The Adoration of the Shepherds

The first witnesses to the birth of Christ were three shepherds. According to Jacobus de Voragine, a major influence on artists of his day, the shepherds were not awake looking over their flocks but following the custom of not sleeping on the night of the winter solstice. Although a number of paintings the Adoration of the Shepherds exist the subject for artists but was not viewed as being as significant as those of the Nativity or the Adoration of the Magi, probably because there is no mention of this in the Gospels of St Luke. In many paintings of the Middle Ages the adoration of the three shepherds were often integrated into paintings of the Nativity. However, today three important paintings of the Adoration of the Shepherds – one by Hugo van der Goes, the other by Domenico del Ghirlandaio are in the public domain. Before looking at these two paintings a note of clarification: Although paintings of the the subject are frequently titled Adoration of the Shepherds a more appropriate title would be Adoration of the Child because the shepherds have arrived to pay homage to the Christ Child, not the other way round.

Hugo van der Goes – The Adoration of the Shepherds – Portinari Altarpiece

Hugo van der Goes, Portinari Altarpiece (interior), 1473-78, oil on pane, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence


The Portinari Altarpiece was commissioned by the wealthy Florentine businessman Tommasso Portinari for the Church of Sant’ Egido in the grounds of the Hopspital of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence; today it hangs in the Galleria degli Uffizi in the same city. The triptych was painted in Ghent by Hugo van der Goes before being transported, by sea, to Italy, a vast undertaking because the finished work measured 5.8 m by 2.6m. The composition reflects its origins – Northern European- with dark hues and a sense of foreboding. The three shepherds are rendered realistically, wearing the costumes worn by the peasantry at the time. A rolling narrative has been adopted by van der Goes, one part of the painting speaks to another part, for instance, at the top right hand corner of the central panel an angel informs the three shepherds that Christ has arrived, further down entering the framed entrance the three shepherds have already arrived, already paying homage to the Christ Child. Similarly, Mary and Joseph are depicted leading a donkey down a mountain path in the top left of the left hand panel. The Nativity and the Adoration of the Shepherds have been combined into one composition, the central panel. The painting is imbued with symbolism, illustrating theological practice or texts: The angels in the central panel wear specific liturgical vestments, only worn during the Solemn High Mass and the same vestments with the sheaf of wheat in the foreground symbolises the Eucharist. The angel dressed in dark robing hovering above the ox and donkey represents Satan and the ever present temptation of sin. The crumbling shed and Romanesque buildings represent the end of the Old Testament, replaced with the New Testament on the birth of Christ. The discarded clog in front of the red robed Joseph symbolises the removal of shoes before entering a place of worship. The flowers in the apothecary jar are there as poignant symbols: the scarlet lilies and the irises represent the Passion, violets represent humility and the three red carnations allude to the three nails on the cross.

Domenico del Ghirlandaio – Adoration of the Shepherds

Domenico del Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1485, tempera on panel, Sassetti Chapel, Santa Trinità, Florence

Domenico del Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Shepherds was undoubtedly influenced by the Portinari Altarpiece, painted two years earlier. The composition invokes Pseudo-Bonaventure’s account of the birth of Christ and is classical in design, clearly positioned in ancient Rome, with the two pillars referencing Augustus’s Temple of Peace, which fell on the day Christ was born. The stand out piece of painting is that of the Christ Child, finely drawn and superbly modelled in three dimensions. Ghirlandaio has placed the birth of Christ in the remains of imperial Rome. The pillars create a break between the foreground and the background, with Mary and Joseph, the three shepherds and the ox and ass occupying this space, and importantly, distinguish the religious signification from the action taking place in the background. This part of the composition is imparted with theological symbolism: The inscription on the sarcophagus reads Ense cadens. Solymo. Pompei Pului[us] Augur Numen. Ait. Quae me conteg[it] Urna Dabit which identifies it as the tomb of Fulvius, augur and soldier in Pompey’s army, mortally wounded during the battle for Jerusalem in 63 BC, who on his deathbed proclaimed that a new God would rise from his resting place. The sarcophagus connects altar with tomb, anticipates the death of Christ followed by his resurrection, with the empty tomb and garland, a classical symbol for victory, and reinforces the message of redemption. The sarcophagus doubling as a manger references the union of altar and crib.

Adoration of the Magi

Adoration of the Magi paintings complements those of the Nativity. The Epiphany (meaning manifestation), celebrated annually on the 6th January was first used by pagans as a term for a public appearance by a king or emperor. In Christianity the Epiphany celebrates the appearance of Christ to the Gentiles in the form of the three Magi or kings. Early Christians interchanged ‘epiphany’ with ‘theophany’ meaning the appearance of a god in human form. Certain motifs were re-imagined from earlier pagan imagery, for example, captured prisoners kneeling and the laying of wreaths signifying respect and obligation. The Epiphany has often been directly linked to the Eucharist, equating the procession and gifts of the Magi with the offertory rite, the carrying of bread and wine to the altar; the priest blessing the offering in imitation of Jesus blessing the Magi.

The theological basis for the Adoration of the Magi was the Gospel of St Matthew and Psalm 71:10-11. It noted that three men (though the actual number is disputed) came from distant lands to pay homage to the new-born Christ, bringing with them three gifts, although the actual nature of the gifts is not explicitly stated: Psalm 71:10-11 prophesises that ‘the kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents; the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts. And all kings of the earth shall adore him: all nations shall serve him. It has remained a popular Christian theme, the origins of the tradition of exchanging gifts at Christmas.

The Magi were versed in astronomy and astrology and since the eighth-century the assumption has been that the three Magi came from the then known three continents: Europe,  Asia and Africa. This led to some theologians asserting that one of the kings was a black man, one of three sons from races of mankind descended from the three sons of Noah. The three kings were named: Melchior, Balthasar (Balthazar) and Caspar (Gaspar) and represented the three stages of Man’s life: Youth, Middle Age and Old Age. Unfortunately through time the names and age profiles of Caspar and Balthasar have been interchanged when represented in paintings so each painting ought to be interpreted on its individual merits.

Christ’s dual nature is most readily represented in Adoration of the Magi paintings. The Christ Child was born divine but lived as man for over thirty years; in paintings of the Adoration of the Magi this is represented by the gift of myrrh, a symbol of Christ’s humanity.

The Adoration of the Magi was popular and remains so among Florentines to this day. Annually, a re-enactment of the journey to Bethlehem of the Magi and their retinue, often numbering in the hundreds, takes place through the streets of Florence. The Florentine artist Sandro Botticelli painted several versions of the subject.

Sandro Botticelli – Adoration of the Magi

Arguably his most significant rendering of the Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli today hangs in the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence (Fig 10). The altarpiece was commissioned by Guasparre del Lama, a wealthy and influential Florentine banker for his burial chapel in the Church of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Testimonies show that del Lama instructed that after his death Masses be said annually, once on the date of his death and again on the Epiphany.

Botticelli places the three Magi along with Joseph in the centre of the composition, close to Mary and Jesus; this was a radical break from tradition, that of displaying on a path the long train of the three Magi. By doing this Botticelli has reduced the narrative aspect, allowing him to bisect the painting symmetrically, placing the Virgin and Child and the veiled ciborium on the step at the apex of the central triangular composition under the rectangular form of the shed, interestingly, what appears to be a combination of the two traditional settings of the Nativity, the cave and the shed, thus ensuring that this remains the focal point of the story, the remaining twenty eight ‘witnesses’ are grouped outside and must look up to the Holy Family from below. Botticelli is indebted to Pseudo-Bonaventure’s account of the arrival of the Magi into Bethlehem, the three Magi greet Christ more like kin than kings, kissing Christ’s hands and feet, in this instance it is Melchior touching the toes of Jesus through veiled hands, a sign of respect in Eastern cultures; there is a deliberate absence of pomp and ceremony. The painting is imbued with subtle symbolism: the laurel growing out of the walls signifying Christ’s victory, and in the top right hand corner, perched on the wall, a peacock, a symbol of the resurrection and of the New Order forthcoming. The remains of a classical building to the left of the main subject is probably the Temple of Peace, suggesting that both the pagan and Jewish belief systems are in decline. Positioned centrally, touching the top horizontal edge of the panel, a star with its rays arching over Christ blow, the Star of the Epiphany. In the bottom right hand side of the painting two figures are isolated from the rest of the group; they are Caspar, clad in an elegant white robe glancing towards Balthasar, dressed in a fine deep red gown.


Peter Bruegel – The Adoration of the Kings

Peter Bruegel, The Adoration of the Kings, 1564, oil on oak panel

Pieter Breugel painted The Adoration of the Kings in 1564, a painting different in look and intent from those of the same subject by Botticelli. Breugel’s painting is one about humility, vulnerability and humanity. Its provenance is unclear, no record exists on who commissioned it; today it hangs in the National Gallery in London but it is reasonable to claim that it was painted for a private collector rather than a church.

Bruegel has painted looking down on to the ‘action’, the focal point of the composition the triangular form of the Virgin Mary and Jesus set against a backdrop of a sturdy looking, realistic stable. The Virgin sits in front of Joseph with the newly born Christ Child on her knee. Bruegel has painted the Christ Child very small and naked, vulnerable, exposed to both the onlookers and the elements, only partially protected by a white heavy cloth, which appears to be bearing down on his body, Christ portrayed as being no different from other human beings, susceptible to anxiety, pain and fear. His mother is far from being portrayed as divine, her veil slipping over one eye, a dishevelled look. Joseph appears outside of the narrative, distracted by the whisperings of a neighbour. The Three Kings are hardly regal in their somewhat tattered clothing and unkempt appearance, and can be read as caricatures of kings. A vessel of golden-red grains of myrrh is being offered to Jesus by Balthazar, dressed in green. This gesture alludes to Christ’s future death and burial; myrrh was associated with the burial ritual, used to anoint the body of the deceased. It is the oil used to anoint the tabernacle. Look carefully… the Christ Child appears to recoil from the gift. A response that may anticipates Christ’s moment of pain and anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane when he pleads with his father to ‘take away the cup of suffering’ (Mark 14:36). Bruegel’s depiction of the three Magi fails to distinguish between the three stages of life.

To the right of the composition a bespectacled male looks on, his inclusion open to differing interpretations: Is Bruegel alluding to the possibility that Man is incapable of recognising the importance of what is in front of their eyes? This may be so for in other paintings Bruegel has included spectacles to signify the inability to see the truth. Aside from the three Magi the rest of the onlookers appear to be disinterested in the birth of the Christ Child and more interested in the gifts being bestowed.

Little is known about Bruegel’s life or beliefs and his rendering of the story is ambiguous, the uneasy atmosphere is at odds with a devotional work, raising the question – Was he a believer? Or is the painting simply a comment on the nature of Man; a cynic may claim that it is a comment on Man’s innate inhumanity. The painting is not anti-religious neither is it endorsing or advocating Christianity.


Hugo van der Goes (circle of) – The Adoration of the Magi

Hugo van der Goes (circle of), The Adoration of the Magi, 1440-80, oil on board, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath

The painting from the circle of Hugo van der Goes is more condensed and easier to read. Relatively small scale it is a devotional rendition of the Adoration of the Magi. There are three distinct sections, with the Virgin Mary, with the Christ Child on a white cloth on her lap dominating the central panel, alluding to the Eucharist. The Magi appear twice, firstly in the right hand panel, riding camels, guided by the star to Bethlehem, secondly in the left hand panel, presenting gifts to Christ. Kneeling in front of Jesus is Caspar, dressed in red, symbolising passion, presenting the gift of gold, symbolising Tribute. Behind him is the dark bearded figure of Melchior, adorned in green, symbolising fertility and the fullness of life, ready to part with his gift of dressed in black, with his gift of myrrh. In this painting the balding figure of Caspar represents Europe, the bearded figure of Melchior, Asia, and the dark presence of Balthazar, Africa. The narrative follows closely the medieval interpretation of the stories.

Although the religious significance of the subjects recorded in these paintings may have declined, nevertheless the human values associated with the Biblical stories: Kindness, charity, generosity, remain poignant and the paintings of The Nativity, the Adoration of the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Magi still have the power to resonate with us, particularly at Christmas and in these dark troubling times.




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