There is no doubt that the Christ Pantocrator, Marian art and the passion of Christ are some of the most widely used religious art forms in Orthodox Christianity. However, the importance of the Nativity in art can be said to rival each of these forms. The scope and detail of the Nativity of Jesus in art has been well documented beginning with its first depictions in the fourth century. We have a fine example of this form of art etched on early Christian Roman sarcophagi. In the catacombs of Rome, a depiction of the Magi, presenting gifts to an infant Christ, seated on Mary’s lap, shows the care and detailed placed on it by its anonymous artist. Equally, impressive is a 4th century sarcophagus from Milan that shows Jesus lying in a manger surrounded animals of symbolic importance. These early representations of Jesus’ Nativity were simple and scarce, but following Constantine’s open acceptance of Christianity, the art of the Nativity together with many other scenes of Jesus’ life would become dominate in Christian art.
The importance and emphasize of Nativity art was always placed on its subjects. For instance, Mary, the Mother of God, would be seated to insist on the birth being painless, while the infant Jesus was wrapped in garments, lying in a manger. Next to Jesus are always two interesting animals, the ass and the ox. The symbolism behind their inclusion in the Nativity is traditionally meant to represent, the ox seen as Israel, and the ass seen as the Gentiles. In addition to these two highly symbolic animals, images of shepherds and the Magi or (Three) Wise Men from the east, who come to worship the “King of the Jews” are commonly present to represent the people of the world. Often in cases where a building is shown, it appears to be a stable or roofed structure. The accuracy of the setting where Jesus was born is not mentioned in the gospels, other than to say that Mary “laid him (Jesus) in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Byzantine Nativity scene from the Karanilik Kilise (or the Dark Church) in Goreme, Turkey.
By the sixth century, a new form of the Nativity surfaced in Byzantine Syria, setting the standard of art produced in the east (and Italy) throughout the Middle Ages. We only have to key in the search term “Byzantine Nativity scene” online to be delighted by a rich source of imagery. How it differs from the Nativity of Jesus of the fourth and fifth century is that the setting is now no longer a stable or roofed structure but a cave immersed in a mountain. (In northwestern Europe, Nativity artists took elements of Byzantine iconography that they liked, but retained the setting of the stable.) The cave itself is supposed to represent the birthplace of Jesus, sanctioned by the Church and believed to be beneath the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem. In iconographic illustrations the cave is also always dark, representing the world being thrown into darkness, but saved by light – the Nativity of Jesus.
The Nativity of Jesus (1405) by St. Andrei Rublev, a medieval Russian painter.
A late Middle Ages Byzantine fresco from Mistra, Greece.
Other major difference between the earlier art of the nativity and the newer version, now depicts Mary in a reclining position, doing away with the concept of painless birth. She is lying on a cushion, with her body and face turned away from Jesus, looking outwards to the world. Joseph is also depicted in this new form of Nativity, often in the foreground resting his head on his hands. He is usually seen listening to the ‘tempter’, who tries to entice Joseph not to accept the miracle birth of Jesus. Interestingly, like Joseph’s separate scene away from the main Nativity, two midwives are illustrated bathing the infant Jesus. The bathing scene is often a tell-tale sign of Byzantine iconography.
The usual suspects of angels, the Magi and the shepherds are also still present in this version of the Nativity. The angels act as the messengers of good news and the shepherds act as witnesses to Jesus birth; and the small group of mysterious travellers known as the Magi, bear gifts and goodwill to the “King of the Jews”. The Magi are not difficult to spot, they are always seen to the left of the icon, typically riding horses, to illustrate their long journey from the east. Last but not least, Jesus is still shown lying in the manger wrapped tightly in garments and alongside him are the ox and ass.
Small details of the Nativity of Jesus in Byzantine art occasionally differ from icon to icon. Sometimes all the elements that we have talked about are present and at other times, for instance, we might find the Magi on foot, presenting their gifts. In later Orthodox icon art, it is not surprising that we might find a few different Western elements, like the kneeling Virgin.