Paintings of the birth of Jesus

Questions for Bible study groups

  1. Identify one of the paintings below that tries to show the scene of Jesus’ birth as it really was
  2. Identify a second painting that relies on symbolism, not reality
  3. Which painting do you prefer? Why?

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

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 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

Gerard van Honthorst, 1622

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)

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

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

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.

Find Out More

Modern images of Jesus and Mary
Jesus and Children