Jesus, Mary and Joseph in Bethlehem
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:
The Birth of Christ, Federico Barocci, 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
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
Radiant light emanates from
the newborn child, illuminating everything around it - 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.
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
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
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.
The Nativity, Conrad von Soest, 1403
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
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
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
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
Meister der Palastkapelle, Palermo, 1150
Comment: Mary and Jesus are at the
centre of this composite picture. Around them are
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
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
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
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
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
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)
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
last, Mary in pink rather than blue.
Michael Pacher, The St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, 1503
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
ill wind that blows no good.
El Greco, 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
are all these people?' Joseph seems to be saying, as he gazes at the crowd coming down the
hill towards his little family.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
to form, there is not too much physical beauty in Bruegel's painting of
the Nativity. Even here he will not idealize the scene.
Adoration of the Kings, Hendrik ter Brugghen, 1619
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
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
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.
in the story of the Birth
2:1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all
the world should be registered.
The Shepherds and the Angels
that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch
over their flock by night.
Paintings in the New Testament, Bible Study Resource. The Nativity - birth of Jesus Christ at Bethlehem, his mother Mary. Joseph and the shepherds
Copyright 2012 Elizabeth Fletcher