Another year has nearly run its course and once again the winter celebrations of various denominations and articulations have begun (or summer ones, for those of you in the Southern Hemisphere). Like every year, I am stealing a little time on (or near) Christmas Day to reflect on some aspect of that context and perhaps to add a little festive cheer for those reading our blog – or just to give you something interesting or beautiful to look at.
This year, our Christmas post is dedicated to what must be the most “Christmassy” (that’s not a word? – well, now it is!) motif of all we come across on our travels. What might that be: a Christmas tree, Santa Claus, something to do with snow or some seasonal decoration? Well no, it’s the nativity, the depiction of the birth of Jesus (actually, or its more or less immediate aftermath), the very event that the Christmas festival celebrates.We looked at the distinctly Western and highly elaborate Neapolitan presepe nativities two years ago, so today, I would like to show you some of the Early Christian and Byzantine nativities that we encounter – and which may be a little less familiar.
Most of us, whatever we believe in, will have seen one depiction or other of that event, as it has been traditional for 1,500 years or more, accruing conventions, habits and variations throughout that time. It can be seen on the interiors or exteriors of churches, in museums and at Christmas markets worldwide, in two- or even three-dimensional form.
Also, many of us are probably at least roughly familiar with the story behind such images. If you’re not, we can help: the nativity as usually depicted is based on only two (Luke and Matthew) of the four canonical gospels, conflating details from both. Both tell of Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem and Jesus being born there. Luke (2.1-20) concentrates on the circumstances (the Roman census, “no room at the inn” and all that) and on the adoration of the new-born saviour by the local shepherds, alerted by messenger angels. In contrast, Matthew (1.1-2.20) focuses on events before the birth, especially Joseph’s misgivings about his young wife’s miraculous pregnancy, before following the trail of the three “magi” or “Wise Men”.
Conventionally, Luke is seen to stress the extraordinary idea of a divine presence entering the world just like a human, in humbleness and poverty, whereas Matthew is considered to underline the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy.
Be that as it may, the nativity as now known and established takes content from both gospel versions, with other traditions added on over time. The first depictions of the nativity we know of date to the 4th century AD, i.e. the period when Christianity became established within the Roman Empire. It seems that the adoration by the Three Magi is the earliest recognisable nativity-themed motif, appearing in the 3rd and 4th centuries already. It can be interpreted as telling a tale of distant outsiders accepting the new saviour before his own people did.
As for the nativity proper, beginning slightly later (4th and 5th centuries), it initially tends to show only the manger, usually with the swaddled baby inside, flanked by ox and donkey. Those two animals have been a quintessential aspect of nativities ever since – but they are not actually mentioned in either of the gospel versions! Most probably, the tradition of showing them derives from an interpretation of earlier prophecy and symbolises how all of “dumb” creation recognises the divine even before humankind does. Both these early motifs are well-suited to the narrative of a then young religion just having overcome persecution and marginalisation.
After the full establishment of Christianity and the beginnings of more organised discussion and formulation of its dogmas and beliefs, and thus its narratives, much of its imagery changed quite substantially. Thus, the 6th century sees the introduction of richer nativity scenes across Early Byzantine art, including many more of the now-familiar features.
Most typically, the Virgin Mary is shown in a cave. Again, there is no cave in the gospel, but by that time, the cave under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem had become a major Christian pilgrimage, thus providing the appropriate setting for the scene. Mary is shown resting, next to her newborn not long after giving birth to him; often a group of midwives (also derived from non-gospel tradition) is seen nearby, bathing the baby (which may thus appear twice in a single image. Invariably, all this is surrounded by multiple other figures, including adoring shepherds, exulting angels, the magi – and Joseph. A little surprisingly for the viewer used to later and western imagery, he is often shown not so much as part of the Holy Family, but a little apart from the Virgin and Child, his face and gestures expressing dismay, worry or fatigue. This can be read to simply express the poignancy of the insecure and humble setting of the birth, but it should also reflect Joseph’s tribulations as outlined by Matthew – while also foreshadowing the harrowing events that will occur at the other end of Jesus’s presence among humankind: his torture and crucifixion. Such a reference makes perfect sense, as the birth itself is central to Christ’s divine and human nature, the very feature that permits his death and resurrection and is thus central to belief in him (the duality or otherwise of that nature was also the centre of often controversial debate and dispute for centuries to come).
Once established, the 5th or 6th century convention of the Byzantine nativity stays in place for nearly another millennium, wherever and whenever there is Byzantine art. That is not to say that there are no stylistic and artistic changes, developments and variations, but the essential features are now set and only subject to various degrees of internal reorganisation – as is Byzantine art in general.
The Western tradition clearly adopts the Byzantine convention at first, but starts veering away from it long before the Renaissance, eventually creating a modified version of the scene. Among the most striking differences are the disappearance of the midwives, the choice of a stable as the setting, a “calmer” and more central role for Joseph, and a closer bond between Mother and Child, as the Virgin increasingly holds or even suckles the infant – motifs well known in Byzantine art, but not in the context of the Nativity.
Whether you are celebrating Christmas or not, and whatever you may believe in, I hope you enjoyed our little look at Early Christian and Byzantine nativities. If you are interested in looking at more such art, in learning about its meanings and development, and in being told all kinds of stories about the people that created such works and so much else, you might want to have a look at our expert-led tours. Wherever you are, we hope you are having a peaceful and harmonious time with your friends and loved ones.