The Birth of Jesus Christ, great paintings of the Nativity in the Bible

Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem 

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Icon of Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ

Modern images of Jesus and Mary: Mary in 'The Passion of the Christ'

Modern images
of Jesus and Mary

Mary and the angel Gabriel


Finding the Saviour in the Temple, William Hunt, detail

Jesus' family

Photograph by Michael Belk

Jesus and children

Mary Magdalene sculpture

Mary Magdalene

Christ in the house of Martha and Mary, by Velázquez

Martha & Mary

Mary of Nazareth

Mary of Nazareth

Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, Flandrin

Entry to Jerusalem

Jesus and the money changers

Jesus & the money-changers

Painting, Last Supper, Joos van Cleve

The Last Supper

Agony in the Garden, Heinrich, Gethsemane

Agony in the Garden

Spanish wood carving, The Kiss of Judas

Betrayal by Judas

Passion of Christ, Cranach

The Passion

Ecce Homo, by Quintin Massys

Jesus before Pilate

Crucifixion, Francis Bacon


Jesus taken down from the cross, painting detail

Descent from the cross

Burial of Jesus

Painting of the resurrected Christ


Fra Angelico, angel from painting of the Annunciation



Find out more

Mother and child, George de la Tour

Mary of Nazareth 
An extraordinary woman

Joseph of Nazareth

Joseph's story

Newborn baby

Childbirth in ancient times

Angel flowers, white

What is an 'Angel'?

The Annunciation, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1850

Paintings of angels

Map showing land formations around Jerusalem and Bethlehem

Bible maps


Women's Clothing

'Both women and men wore a loincloth, the equivalent of underpants. This was a long thin strip of cloth which was wound around the waist and then between the legs, with the end tucked in at the waist. Women wore some sort of binding around their breasts...'  Read more...


Prayer for a New Mother

'Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,
The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,
The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud
That wraps the strange new body of the dead.'

Read more..


An Ancient Village

'In summer the windows were covered with a lattice cover; in winter with thick woolen matting. This kept the house cool in summer and warm in winter...'  Read more...

Joseph's Story

'Something unexpected happened. Mary became pregnant, and there seemed no obvious explanation. She was a virtuous girl without any previous hint of scandal, so Joseph was perplexed. There must be a father, but he knew it wasn't him...'   Read more...


The Real Mary

'What did Mary look like? Shorter than modern people, about five feet tall for women and a bit more for men. Robust, sturdy, with strong brown hands callused from work, and glossy black hair.
Peasant women often painted a line of red or purple dye down the center  of their hair, and wore modest pieces of jewelry...'


Childbirth in Mary's time

'In the Roman world there were special birthing chairs with a U-shaped hole in the seat and supports for the feet and back, but we have no way of knowing whether this medical technology had reached provincial towns in Israel...'    Read more...






Paintings of the birth of Jesus may show him born in an animal's storeroom to an ordinary peasant woman, or ignore historical fact and show a richly dressed woman with a newborn king. Both versions are right: Jesus was one of us, born to ordinary parents, but he was also King of Kings, born to glory.

Paintings of the Nativity may show:

  • a ruined building - not because Mary and Joseph were poor, but to symbolise the failure of the old world, the old way of doing things; Jesus would usher in a new world

  • Detail for Ghirlandaio's Nativityangels, signalling the presence of God and his protection of the Holy Family

  • shepherds, the first people to recognise who Jesus was

  • the animals, representing the whole of Nature

  • the infant Jesus unwrapped to show his human body; he was truly man as well as God

  • Mary, usually showing no signs of exhaustion from a normal birth (Caravaggio caused outrage by painting a weary Mary)

  • Joseph, sometimes as a young man but often an older man who would not infringe on Mary's virginity.

The Birth of Christ, Federico Barocci, 1597

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Federico Barocci, Birth of Christ, 1597

How sweet this painting is. Mary, the new mother, is unable to drag her gaze away from the miracle that is her baby; Joseph, the elated father, pulling visitors in to see his child, surely the most wonderful thing in the universe; and the calm ox and donkey, who look as if they have seen it all before.

Barocci used pastel colours to great effect. His paintings were subtle, gentle, engaging. The composition of this paintings is also interesting: the newborn baby is at the far right, almost outside the picture, but everything directs our eye towards it: Joseph's pointing hand, Mary's face and hands, the animals' gaze.

The Virgin of the Veil, Ambrogio Borgognone, 1500

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Madonna of the Veil, Borgognone

The new Eve (Mary) has discarded the half-rotten apple, symbol of Eve's disgrace. Her son will save the world lost by Adam and Eve. In the background, through a window, sit two Carthusian monks pointing to the monastery that will house this magnificent painting - the Certosa di Pavia in Lombardy.

Gerard van Honthorst, 1622 

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, 1622 Gerard van Honthorst

Radiant light emanates from the newborn child, illuminating everything around it - Jesus is the Light of the World. It is also a symbol of the message this baby will bring to the world. But Mary, do cover up the baby please - it's winter, after all. 
In the bottom righ-hand corner of the painting is a device that looks like a crest of arms, or insignia. This is probably the crest of arms of the person/family who commissioned the painting from van Honthorst.
Can anyone tell me the name of this patron?

Adoration of the Kings, Jan Gossaert de Mabuse (Maubeuge)

The best of the early Renaissance painters concentrated on exquisite decoration; they were not interested in graphic portrayal of real life. 

There are many figures and components in Mabuse's 'Adoration of the Kings', but each one is necessary to the whole. The artist obviously worked it out in great detail before he began to paint - indeed, the actual application of paint was only a last step in the process. 

Every figure and object emphasises the importance of the Madonna and the Infant Jesus - they have become the center of the universe. But the real world is there too, in the presence of two small (but aristocratic) dogs.



Lorenzo Costa, 1490

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Lorenzo Costa, Birth of Jesus, 1490

The Madonna has the facial delicacy which was a feature of Costa's paintings. Am I alone in noting some similarity between this Madonna and the women painted by Leonardo da Vinci? Note the pose of the Infant Jesus; he is usually shown lying on his back looking upwards at his mother. Discarding this formula, Costa has a drowsy Infant looking outwards, towards the viewer. What a relaxed little baby! Joseph looks glum - or is it merely his drooping moustache that makes him seem so?

Gerard David,   circa 1510

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Gerard David, The Nativity, Vienna, circa 1510

aaGerard_David_Metropolitan_Cervara_altarpiece_Annunciation_Archangel_Gabriel.jpg (97386 bytes)Art critics have called Gerard David's paintings conservative, even bland, and who am I to argue? But he paints the most wonderful angels - glorious creatures, truly celestial. See their exquisite wings in his 'Annunciation' in the thumbnail at right. If this is 'conservative', give me more.

Bruges, as the headquarters of Netherlands art, was losing its importance to Antwerp when this painting was done. David was the dean of the painters' guild, and also the last great master from this town. His paintings, beautiful as they are, have a certain melancholy, a gentle sadness.

Nativity, by Gerard David


The Nativity, Conrad von Soest, 1403

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, 1403, Conrad von Soest, Nativity Panel, Mary nurses her baby while Joseph prepares food

The stable's roof may be in disrepair, but Mary's clothes are not. Nor is she cold - Joseph is blowing on a little fire, either to warm the room or prepare some food for her - probably both. Her look of utter tenderness as she gazes at Jesus is homely and realistic, and the baby turns his little head towards her.

Surely one of the most charming paintings of the Nativity. This is not Mary Queen of Heaven with the Infant Saviour, but a happy woman savouring the sight and smell of her new baby. It is an image of a happy family: a contented baby, a smiling well-cared for mother, and a father rising to the occasion by sensibly heating up some food for everyone. The colors used by von Soest emphasise the simplicity and confidence of true happiness.


The Nativity with Sts Francis and Lawrence, Caravaggio, 1609

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Caravaggio, The Nativity with Sts Francis and Lawrence, 1609

Caravaggio is always original. His Mary is in disarray, slumping back in exhaustion like any woman who has just given birth. Joseph gazes unblinkingly at the little form on the floor -  new life, full of promise. The shepherds crowd around, talking among themselves. An angel hovers overhead, holding the banner that proclaims 'Gloria in Excelsis Deo' - Glory to God in the Highest. This is altogether different to Von Soest's homily image of the Birth of Christ, above. 

Caravaggio's painting caused a scandel when it was first seen. He showed a very human woman slumped on the floor, exhausted after giving birth. To a modern audience, this is realistic rather than controversial. To viewers in the early 1600's, it was confronting if not downright blasphemous. Until that time people were used to images of Mary as a quasi-goddess, and indeed theology at the time held that the birth process had, for Mary, been painless and miraculous, in that Jesus was born without the breaking of her hymen - despite the birth, she remained a virgo intacta. So Caravaggio's painting was not only disrespectful; it challenged accepted theology. No wonder he got into trouble.


Adoration of the Shepherds, George de la Tour,  1644

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Adoration of the Shepherds, Georges de la Tour, 1644

De la Tour is famous for his use of light, and of candlelight in particular, and now he paints the Light of the World. The viewer stands in the darkened background a little away from the quiet, reverent group. The faces of these people show that they are aware of the significance of the newborn child - their focus on his tiny swaddled figure is complete.


The Nativity, Arthur Hughes, 1858

Could any painting illustrate more dramatically the difference between 16th and 19th century Christianity? Hughes' painting is beautiful, truly lovely, but it has none of the vigor and theological imagery of earlier paintings. Mary is a sweet-faced, submissive innocent; the angels do not demand our attention. The dirty trampled straw on the floor of the stable, signifying as it does the real world, may be the most interesting feature of the picture. So it was with theology in 19th century England: struggling for relevance, non-assertive, afraid to demand attention or argue against the commercialism that swept the English-speaking world.



Artist unknown,  circa 1100's  

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, ivory plaque with Mary, Joseph, angels and animals

Miniature ivory plaque showing Mary lying on a bed. It may have been part of a portable icon or altar belonging to a royal or aristocratic family, carried around from castle to castle. Most noble families had a portable altar which travelled with them.  The composition of the plaque is divided into two sections: a sleeping, clearly exhausted Mary and some angels are on the left, and Baby Jesus, Joseph and the animals are on the right. A homely touch has Joseph rocking the pallet on which the baby lies - something any parent will relate to.


Stained glass window in St. Denis Basilica, Paris; circa 1100


Mary lies resting on a simple frame-bed, with the swaddled baby beside her. Joseph looks down on them both. Angels perch, bird-like, above. All three are dressed or covered with blue, the colour of heaven. In a panel to the left of the main section an angel appears to the shepherds; the section at right shows the Presentation in the Temple. Windows in medieval churches were used as teaching aids by the clergy, since few people could read the Bible for themselves.

 Meister der Palastkapelle, Palermo,  1150

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, 1150, Meiste der Palastkapelle, Palermo

Comment: Mary and Jesus are at the centre of this composite picture. Around them are 
 * the singing angels, 
 * the Three Wise Men, 
 * a perturbed Joseph awaking from his dream of danger, 
 * shepherds with gifts, 
 * and at bottom right an image of Salome and the midwife. The story of Salome who doubted the virginity of Mary, but became a believer, was common in the Eastern Orthodox church. It appears in several of the apocryphal gospels.

This ancient picture has survived because it is a fresco made from colored glass and stone fragments, usually on a high wall - and hence not subject to damp or vandals. Latin was always used for church inscriptions, since it was a universal language understood by all educated people of the time.

Alabaster carved icon, faded colouring. Artist unknown, circa 1400

Paintings of the Birth of Christ: circa 1400, alabaster carving of the Nativity, with Mary sleeping

In this charming icon, Mary sleeps after the birth of Jesus. Joseph watches over her with obvious and touching concern. There is a homeliness, an intimacy  about the figures that is unusual. The Holy Family are shown here as normal people, with the emotions and needs of an ordinary family.

Duccio di Buoninsegna,   1308

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, 1308, Duccio di Buoninsegna, panel from an altarpiece

This image of the Birth of Christ was one panel from a huge altar piece originally in the cathedral at Siena. It was placed there in 1311. In 1711, by now out of fashion, it was sawn into pieces and distributed to separate locations. Some of the original panels have been lost, but this one, of the birth of Christ, gives some idea of blazing beauty of the sumptuous original.

Jans tot Sint Geertgen, 1490

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Jans tot Sint Geertgen, Birth of Christ, 1490

The faces of Mary and the angels glow with light coming from the figure of the newbobraccio_GerardDeSaintJean_VirginGlory_1490_full.jpg (51085 bytes)rn Christ. From the moment of his birth, Jesus is a source of radiant  enlightenment to the world.

Frankly, I find the painting in the thumbnail at right more interesting (click to enlarge). Mary, crowned with roses (a 'rosary'?) holds the newborn Jesus in her arms. She crushes a serpent/dragon under her foot, and seems encased in an egg-like (an egg is a symbol of new life) ball of light - 'clothed with the sun' as in Revelations 12. Around her, angels swirl, some of them playing musical instruments, other holding the implements of Jesus' Passion. 

Petrus Christus,  1445

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Petrus Christus, Nativity scene

The most flamboyant beings in this painting are the angels, gorgeously dressed and with wings glowing with colour. Heavenly creatures indeed. But poor little Jesus, unclothed and with not even a cradle in which to lie. No crib for his bed, indeed.

Petrus Christus was born at the beginning of the fifteenth century at a village called Baerle in the province of North Brabant. He settled in the city of Bruges in 1444 and purchased his freedom of that city, becoming a master in the Guild of St Luke. He seems to have been the first Flemish easel-painter to introduced items of everyday life into his paintings - something for which Netherlands paintings would, in future centuries, become famous. He was also a very skilled worker, and his technique alone would single him out from among his contemporaries. 

Francesco di Giorgio Martini, 1460

NATIVITY ARTWORKS OF CHRIST AT CHRISTMAS: Birth of Jesus:Francesco di Giorgio Martini

 Manuscript illumination, inset in capital letter probably at head of page. 

The intricacy of these hand-painted manuscript pages is astonishing -see above, taken from a Book of Hours produced in Belgium some time about 1450.


Albrecht Altdorfer, 1513


It's hard not to be flippant about the renovator's nightmare that shelters Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. They have obviously taken refuge in a ruined house. But this house is a metaphor for the world to which Jesus came, a moral shambles with not even one part of it truly habitable. Into such a world was Jesus born.


Paul Gauguin, Te Tamari No Atua (Nativity), 1896 (both paintings)

NATIVITY: Paul Gauguin, Te Tamari No Atua

Nativity Paintings of Jesus at Christmas, Birth of Christ, Paul Gaugauin, Bible Art Gallery: Artworks from the Old and New Testaments

Comment: The exalted mythic creatures of medieval Nativity scenes have disappeared. Despite the presence of the guarding angel, this is a real woman, cradling her baby and lying exhausted after the birth. The fact that she is Polynesian surprises a viewer accustomed to an Anglo-Saxon Mary, but reminds us that Mary was neither: she was a Jewish peasant woman from the farming province of Galilee.

Compare the seated figure and the old woman in the top picture with the figures in the lower painting; the old woman has become an angel. Note also the animals and crib in the background of each painting.


The Concert of Angels and the Nativity, Matthias Grünewald,  1515

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Matthias Grunewald, 1515,  Concert of Angels

At last, Mary in pink rather than blue. 
Notice Mary's delighted smile and the baby chortling up at her - also the cello-playing angel's pure joy at the arrival of the Saviour. This is homely grandeur at its best - notice the potty and bath ready for this beloved baby. It is no accident that Grünewald included these items. He was reminding the viewer that Jesus was both divine and human in the same body.

Michael Pacher, The St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, 1503

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, 1503 Michael Pacher, St Wolfgang Altarpiece.jpg

Pacher was a wood-carver as well as a painter, and it shows. His figures have a three-dimensional realism that other painters could only hope for. 

When he was a young man he was deeply impressed with the work of the Italian Andrea Mantegna, whose works are famous for their use of perspective, foreshortening  and depth. As well, Pacher used intricate detail in those parts of the Altarpiece that are carved.

Marten de Vos, 1577

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Marten de Vos, Birth of Christ

It's an ill wind that blows no good. 
Many of the paintings in Antwerp churches were destroyed by Protestant iconoclasts during the 'cleansing' of the Protestant Reformation - in Antwerp, this was in 1566. When sanity returned, Marten de Vos was one of the artists commissioned to make new paintings to replace the destroyed and disfigured ones. 
Notice the rich colours; the ruined buildings - not only a sign of Jesus' humble circumstances, but symbol of a degraded civilization. See too the distant shepherds cavorting as they wave to the angels above.

El Greco, 1603

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, El Greco - The Nativity, 1603

The figures, while clearly mortal, as so ethereal they almost seem to float. El Greco has spurned the traditional blue for Mary's robe, and Joseph's figure is haloed by a golden cloak. These are no ordinary parents, the artist says. The tiny baby, so vulnerable in its nakedness, emanates light.

El Greco captured the essence of all great Spanish art:  subtle sensuality, sophistication, and unique emotional intensity. 



The Shepherds come

Domenico Ghirlandaio, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1485

Nativity Paintings of Jesus at Christmas,Adoration of the Shepherds, Domenico Ghirlandaio, Bible Art Gallery: Artworks from the Old and New Testaments

'Who are all these people?' Joseph seems to be saying, as he gazes at the crowd coming down the hill towards his little family.
Mary, like all of Ghirlandaio's women, is serene, untroubled, concentrating only on her little son, the centre of her universe. The baby is naked - which of course he would not have been in real life. Jewish babies were swaddled in long strips of cloth to give them a sense of security, akin to the constraint they had experienced in the womb.

In less skilful hands this might have been a 'busy' picture. Instead, it teems with life and activity. Even the animals are alert, ears pricked, focused on the Lord of Nature.

Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, 1305

Nativity Paintings of Jesus at Christmas, Birth of Jesus, Giotto,Scrovegni Chapel, Bible Art Gallery: Artworks from the Old and New Testaments

A delighted Mary plays with her new baby. An unnamed woman passes the newly-swaddled infant Jesus to his mother, who lies on a pallet after giving birth. Joseph is waking up - according to medieval thinking, the aged Joseph had not witnessed the miraculous birth of the baby. Angels tumble over the roof of the open shed in which Mary lies. They are watched by surprised shepherds. The ox and the ass seems to have had the best view of the whole event - being animals, they carried no sin, and so were allowed to witness what happened in the stable. Giotto has managed to capture the tenderness and wonder of Mary as she surveys her new-born son.

Piero della Francesca, 1470

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Piero della Francesca, Nativity, 1460

Mary kneels in ethereal simplicity, adoring her tiny Son. Flowers have sprung up in the ground around him. The choir of angels play lutes, typical courtly instruments of the period -  they seem unaware of the large, rather determined ox who tries to nudge them aside. Its head is lowered in just the way that oxen stand - the realism of this creature is surprising, given that painters of this period were often less than convincing in their drawing of animals.  Notice the use of shade and sunlight on the building behind the group - unusual.

One thing that appeals: each of the angels has a distinct face quite different to the others. These are not generic angels, but individuals.

To the right we see Joseph with two rather uncouth-looking shepherds - a nice touch of realism. This threesome seem altogether more vigorous than the other figures in the painting. 
The background for the group is a broken-down stable with brick walls and a plank roof on which the grass is sprouting. On the edge a bird has perched. In the background is a landscape showing the foothills of the Apennines, and on the right a tiny vista of the town, Borgo San Sepolcro, where della Francesca was born in about 1416. He gave his birthplace a touch of immortality in this painting.

Strange to think that this painting was done (and much admired) just twenty years or so before Columbus set sail on his epic voyage for the Americas.


Antonio Allegri, called Correggio,  1528

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Corregio, the Nativity, 1528

At the center of the painting is the Infant Jesus. His body is enclosed within his mother's arms; she in turn is enclosed by the surrounding figures. Notice that every single figure in the painting is effected by the light from the newly-born Christ - even the animals. Perhaps the most affecting thing is the expression on Mary's face: she, the new mother, is completely engrossed in her tiny son, and seems unaware of anything else. 

Correggio's Madonnas are very human, though always strikingly beautiful. The figures in his paintings almost always have beautifully rounded limbs, perfect skin and charming contours - the artist disliked any kind of discord, either in life or art. The treatment of the flesh tones in this particular painting are typical of Correggio's style - he was a master of chiaroscuro, the art of rendering light in shadow and shadow in light. The flesh of Mary, the Babe, the shepherds and even the ethereal angels glows as if alive and warm.

The dark space is illuminated by Jesus himself, who is the source of light. This is both a theological idea and an artistic innovation - religious paintings at that time were expected to be traditional in the way they portrayed Jesus. An interesting question: why is the shepherdess with upraised arm grimacing against the light coming from Jesus? What was Correggio's message in showing her so?


Adoration of the Shepherds, Giorgione,1500

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1500

At first glance this painting of the Adoration of the Shepherds seems rather unexciting. Mary and a suitably aged Joseph gaze at the the newly born Jesus, and the two shepherds bow before the tiny naked figure lying on the ground.

But what about the landscape to the left of the painting? What is the significance of that deep corridor of space that leads off into the distance? The setting seems stronger, more arresting, than the subject itself. Are we meant to think that Giorgione has painted the path humanity will take, into a Christian future?


The Three Wise Men

 Altarpiece of the Virgin, Jacques Darat, 1433

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Jacques Darat, Altarpiece of the Virgin

Contrast this painting with the one above. It is an altarpiece, meant for public display, and there is nothing homely about this Holy Family. Mary's cloak is embroidered with gold thread; her skin has the delicate bloom of a French noblewoman of the time. The stable appears to come equipped with a plush red armchair for her to sit on. This is the venerated Mary of the medieval Catholic church, second only to her Son.


Journey of the Magi, James Tissot,  1894

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Journey of the Magi, James Tissot, 1894

Tissot was not a religious man, and strictly speaking this painting is really only an excuse to show the grandeur of the highland country near Jerusalem/Bethlehem, and the magnificent Arab kings as they may have looked, travelling in search of Jesus.  


Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo da Vinci, 1481

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Leonardo da Vinci, 1481, Adoration of Christ

Critics and antiquarians have spent many hours on this drawing/painting, attempting to work out what parts of it were painted by da Vinci, and what parts were the work of a later hand. No matter. The superb drawing and composition are unmistakably da Vinci's.

The painting pulses with energy. There is a sense of barely controlled chaos in the people, animals and landscape - but at the centre, holding it all together, is the still, calm figure of Mary, and a chubby, unconcerned Baby Jesus.


Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano, 1423

The altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi is Fabriano's most famous painting. Contrast its lavish intricacy with Gauguin's painting of a Polynesian Mary (further up this page) and you will see the evolution of religious painting at a glance. Which do you like better?

Pieter Bruegel,  1564

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Pieter Bruegel, Nativity, 1654

True to form, there is not too much physical beauty in Bruegel's painting of the Nativity. Even here he will not idealize the scene.
One interesting point is the sleeve-length of the king in the left foreground -- overlong to show extravagant use of rich material, and to signal that the owner never has to do any sort of practical work - though there is obviously some slit in the sleeve for the wearer's hand to pass through. But kneeling before this tiny baby, the king has discarded his sceptre and crown.


Adoration of the Kings, Hendrik ter Brugghen, 1619

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, 1619 ADORATION OF THE KINGS Hendrik ter Brugghen

The richly garbed kings are full of gravity and reverence as they offer their gifts - Brugghen suggests they knew very well how momentous is the birth of this little child. And what a sweet child, grasping at the gift as any baby would.

Peter Paul Rubens, 1634

Paintings of the Birth of Christ, Peter Paul Rubens, Adoration of the Magi, 1634

Ruben's Mary is no peasant girl, but a sumptuously dressed queen holding her little prince. The painting has the luscious colours Rubens was noted for - especially gold and red, the colours of triumph - and this is a triumphal scene, with a doctrinal message: Jesus is the Prince of Heaven, with kings as his subjects. 
Fat little cherubs hover above.


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Prayer for a new mother

The things she knew, let her forget again --

The voices in the sky, the fear, the cold,

The gaping shepherds, and the queer old men

Piling their clumsy gifts of foreign gold.

Let her have laughter with her little one;

Teach her the endless, tuneless songs to sing,

Grant her her right to whisper to her son

The foolish names one dare not call a king.

Keep from her dreams the rumble of a crowd,

The smell of rough-cut wood, the trail of red,

The thick and chilly whiteness of the shroud

That wraps the strange new body of the dead.

Ah, let her go, kind Lord, where mothers go

And boast his pretty words and ways, and plan

The proud and happy years that they shall know

Together, when her son is grown a man.

                                                                   Dorothy Parker



Hidden meanings  in the story of the Birth of Jesus
  • Only Matthew and Luke describe Christ's birth, and they do so quite briefly. Never mind - people in the Middle Ages filled out the story. 

  • Luke mentions a house and a manger. But in the apocryphal Book of James 'Joseph found a cave there and brought her into it ... And behold a bright cloud overshadowing the cave ... The cloud withdrew itself out of the cave and a great light appeared in the cave so that our eyes could not endure it. And little by little that light withdrew itself until the young child appeared: and it went and took the breast of its mother Mary.'

  • The apocryphal Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew first mentions the ox and ass. 'On the third day Mary left the cave and went to a stable and put the child in the manger, and the ox and ass adored him.'

  • The familiar image of the Virgin kneeling in adoration followed the account by St Bridget of Sweden who visited Bethlehem in 1370 and wrote in her Revelations of a vision of the Virgin: 'when her time came she took off her shoes and her white cloak and undid her veil, letting her golden hair fall on her shoulders. Then she made ready the swaddling clothes, bent her knees and began to pray. While she was thus praying with hands raised the child was suddenly born, surrounded by a light so bright that it completely eclipsed Joseph's feeble candle.' 

  • Byzantine artists showed an actual confinement with the Virgin lying on a bed and two midwives in attendance. The apocryphal Book of James relates that one of the midwives, Mary Salome refused to believe that Mary could have given birth and still remain a virgin intact, and so demanded to examine Mary for proof. Her arm shrivelled on touching Mary, but was made whole again when she picked up the child. This theme disappeared altogether after it was condemned by the Council of Trent in the mid-16th century.

  • Another account in the 14th century by Pseudo-Bonaventura says: 'The Virgin arose in the night and leaned against a pillar. Joseph brought into the stable a bundle of hay which he threw down and the Son of God, issuing from his mother's belly without causing her pain, was projected instantly on to the hay at the Virgin's feet.' 

The Bible text   The Birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke

2:1  In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 
2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 
3All went to their own towns to be registered.
4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 
5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 
6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 
7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 

The Shepherds and the Angels

 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night.  Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.  But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:  to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.  This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,  and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.’ So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.  When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.


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Paintings in the New Testament, Bible Study Resource. The Nativity - birth of Jesus Christ at Bethlehem, his mother Mary. Joseph and the shepherds 

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Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Fletcher