Depictions of The Nativity Throughout History

The First Nativity Recreation

The Nativity by Giotto in the Lower Church at Assisi (1306-1311) Francis of Assisi was the first in written history to recreate the biblical story of the nativity. In 1223, he put together a live nativity scene in a cave near Greccio, Italy to help remind the people to focus on Christ during Christmas. According to the biographer Saint Bonaventure in his book The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi written in 1260, the small nativity scene Saint Francis created comprised of a baby in a manger, along with an ox and an ass adoring the infant in the manger.  

Giotto depicts St. Francis’ nativity (1306-1311)

When the townsfolk came to see the nativity scene, a local friar held mass while St. Francis gave a sermon. Some accounts say that St. Francis was overwhelmed with love and filled with wonderful happiness during his sermon. He taught that the nativity scene is a reminder that Jesus suffered hardships, even as an infant. He also taught that the savior chose to be poor so he could understand what it was like to truly be human in order to better help us through our own suffering. Pope Honorius III blessed St. Francis’ nativity scene exhibit, which soon lead to the popularity of nativity scene reenactments across the Christian world. Within the next hundred years, every church in Italy had to have a nativity scene displayed at Christmas time.  

Depictions From Early Christianity

Fragment from a Roman sarcophagus, fourth century. From the cemetery of Saint Agnes, Rome. Vatican Museums, Museo Pio Cristiano, inv. 31459.

A 4th Century marble fragment from a sarcophagus was found in Saint Agnes Cemetery in Rome. This is one of the earliest depictions of the Magi or Wise Men coming to visit the Christ child. The detail in marble shows the star of Bethlehem, camels, and the gifts each Magi brought for their King. This depiction of the nativity scene speaks more to Matthew’s account in the bible that included the Magi, rather than Luke’s that had no mention of the Magi. Early Christians tended to favor Matthew’s account of the nativity in their art, setting a precedent for what would become known as the traditional nativity scene that include the Magi.  

Byzantine and Orthodox Tradition

Scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, triptych. Constantinople, late 10th century, ivory. Musée du Louvre

Eastern Orthodox depictions of the nativity tended to include Mary and Joseph by the manger as seen in this 10th century ivory carving. There were often parallels in the nativity scene that represented both the life and death of Christ. For example, the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes resembled the burial shroud he would later be wrapped in after being crucified. The nativity scene would be depicted in a cave, which also resembled his cave-like tomb from which he would later be resurrected. Additionally, the tomb was often represented in nativity scenes as a stone that the Christ child was placed upon, instead of a manger.  

Renaissance Art

Leonardo Da Vinci Adoration of the Magi (1481) Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

This unfinished painting by Leonardo Da Vinci shows Mary as the ethereal Madonna. During the Renaissance she plays more of a central role in the religious artwork than ever before. The Christ child has also changed over time, as shown in this painting, he is an older baby (not an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes), with the cognitive ability to not only be aware of his admirers, but also acknowledge their gifts. The Magi who traveled from foreign lands surround him, worshiping him as they grovel before him on their knees.  

Jacopo Tintoretto (Jacopo Robusti), The Nativity, Italian, late 1550s (reworked, 1570s), oil on canvas, 155.6 x 358.1 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston: gift of Quincy Shaw, accession number 46.1430. Photograph © 2016 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Renaissance art also typically favored the stable setting rather than the cave setting as was popular in preceding centuries. This Tintoretto depiction of the nativity, was one of many he was commissioned to paint. Most of his nativity paintings included both Joseph and Mary, but dressed them in modern attire in elegant colors. This is quite different from the modest biblical descriptions of the Mary and Joseph.