There is no doubt that Christ Pantocrator, Marian art and the Passion of the Christ are among the most widely used forms of religious art in Orthodox Christianity. However, it can be said that the importance of Christmas in art rivals each of these forms. The scale and detail of the Nativity of Jesus in art is well documented from its first depictions in the fourth century. We have a fine example of this art form engraved on early Christian Roman sarcophagi. In the catacombs of Rome, the image of the Magi presenting gifts to the Christ child sitting on Mary’s lap shows the care and detail entrusted to him by an anonymous artist. Equally impressive 4th sarcophagus of the century from Milan, which depicts Jesus lying in a manger, surrounded by animals of symbolic significance. These early depictions of the Nativity of Jesus were simple and sparse, but after Constantine openly converted to Christianity, nativity art, along with many other scenes from the life of Jesus, came to dominate Christian art.
The importance and emphasis of Christmas art has always been placed on its subjects. For example, Mary, the Mother of God, sat to insist that the birth be painless, and the baby Jesus, wrapped in clothes, lay in a manger. Next to Jesus are always two interesting animals, a donkey and an ox. The symbolism behind their inclusion at Christmas traditionally means that the ox is seen as Israel and the donkey as pagans. Apart from these two highly symbolic animals, images of shepherds and magi or (three) magi from the east who come to worship the “King of the Jews” are usually present to represent the people of the world. Often, when a building is shown, it appears to be a stable or covered structure. Accuracy The place where Jesus was born is not mentioned in the gospels, except that Mary “put him (Jesus) in a manger, because there was no place for them in an inn.”
Byzantine nativity scene from Karanilik Kilise (or Dark Church) in Göreme, Turkey.
By the sixth century, a new form of Christmas emerged in Byzantine Syria, setting the standard for art produced in the East (and in Italy) throughout the Middle Ages. We only need to search “Byzantine nativity scene” on the Internet to admire the rich source of images. Where it differs from the Nativity of Jesus of the fourth and fifth centuries is that it is no longer a stable or covered structure, but a cave sunk into a mountain. (In northwestern Europe, nativity scene artists took elements of Byzantine iconography they liked, but retained the stable setting.) Christmas in Bethlehem. In iconographic illustrations, the cave is also always dark, representing the world plunged into darkness, but saved by the light – the Nativity of Christ.
Nativity of Christ (1405) by Saint Andrei Rublev, medieval Russian painter
Late medieval Byzantine fresco from Mystras, Greece.
Another important difference between the earlier Nativity art and the newer version is that Mary is now depicted in a recumbent position, eliminating the concept of a painless birth. She lies on a pillow, her body and face turned away from Jesus, she looks outward, at the world. Joseph is also depicted in this new nativity form, often in the foreground with his head in his hands. He is usually seen listening to the “tempter” who tries to tempt Joseph not to accept the miraculous birth of Jesus. It is interesting that, as in a separate scene of Joseph away from the main Nativity, two midwives are depicted bathing the baby Jesus. The bathing scene is often a characteristic feature of Byzantine iconography.
The usual suspects of angels, magi, and shepherds are also still present in this version of Nativity. Angels act as messengers of good news, and shepherds act as witnesses to the birth of Jesus; and a small group of mysterious travelers known as magi bring gifts and benevolence to the “King of the Jews”. The Magi are not difficult to spot and are always visible to the left of the icon, usually on horseback to illustrate their long journey from the east. Last but not least, Jesus is still shown lying in a manger, tightly wrapped in clothes, with an ox and a donkey by his side.
Small details of the Nativity of Christ in Byzantine art sometimes differ from icon to icon. Sometimes all the elements that we have talked about are present, and sometimes, for example, we can meet the Magi on foot, presenting their gifts. Not surprisingly, in later Orthodox icon art we can find several different Western elements, such as the kneeling Mother of God.
Note: This selected article was originally published in 2015. It has been moved to the front pages to further emphasize the original content of this site.