Anyone familiar with the Gospel of Luke will know that Jesus of Nazareth was born, not in Nazareth, where He grew up in St. Joseph’s workshop, but in the bustling city of Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus had commanded that “all the world should be enrolled” (Lk. 2:1) in the census, and in order to be counted every man had to return to his native village. Joseph was a descendent of King David, who was born in Bethlehem (which means “house of the bread”) as was Joseph himself. Thus he had to return to Bethlehem in Judea . He took Mary, who was with child, with him.
In those days the route between Nazareth and Bethlehem, some seventy miles, was filled with cities and villages full of people busy and active with life. Surrounding the villages was the richest countryside, cultivated with orchards and vineyards. The journey took place as we see it represented in many paintings: Mary riding on a donkey, and Joseph walking by her side over sloping hills and through charming valleys.
Bethlehem was about a mile wide at that time. The city was built on the top and upper slope of some hills. These hills were made of a succession of terraces that were covered with fig trees, vines, pomegranates, and olives. The vines hung over the sides of these terraces, which resembled giant stairs. Most of the inhabitants of Bethlehem were shepherds. Flocks were tended everywhere, on the grassy slopes and in the valleys. The shepherds of Bethlehem were celebrated through the country as strong, vigorous, fighting men. They followed their flocks among rugged precipices and craggy rocks, and defended them against the highway thieves who were always on the watch to steal them. In fact, King David had been one of these shepherds.
So it was here in this village of the shepherds where Jesus was born. Because many travelers were in Joseph’s city for the same reason, there were no good accommodations for the poor carpenter and his wife upon their arrival. “And while they were there, the time came for her to be delivered. And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them at the inn” (Lk 2:6-7).
Since at least the fourth century the Nativity scene has been a popular subject for artists. Already by the sixth century, artists had standardized a formula of depicting the birth of the Jesus. The scene was set in a cave where the crib of the Babe appears as a tall, altar-shaped structure. Mary is depicted as lying on a bed apart from her Son, and sometimes not even looking at Him. St. Joseph stands behind or kneels at her side looking thoughtful. An ox and an ass look on the new Baby who is “wrapped in swaddling clothes.”
A cave was used as the setting because the Gospels tell us that Mary laid Baby Jesus is a manger. Mangers are found in stables, and caves were often used as stables in Bethlehem at the time.
The ox and the ass have long been used as symbols of the Messiah, probably because of a passage from Isaiah: “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its Master’s crib: but Israel does not know…” (Is. 1:3). The animals represent the two halves of humanity as understood by the early Christians: the ox for the Jews and the ass for the Gentiles. They represent man needing salvation from the yoke of the law and the burden of paganism. Oxen were yoked, and asses burdened. Both ox and ass are often depicted eating straw from the crib, pointing toward the subject, the Savior.
By the 11th century the Byzantine Nativity image had expanded to include angels, shepherds, and the Magi adoring Jesus against the backdrop of walls and towers that stand for the City of God and the City of Man. To stress the reality of childbirth, Mary is sometimes shown as assisted by two midwives who arrive after the delivery. Jesus is also sometimes shown as receiving his first bath in what appears to be a baptismal font.
The Nativity scene was somewhat less popular in Western Europe than in the Byzantine East before the High Middle Ages. The emphasis in Western Nativity scenes was on the Holy Family, and saints such as St. Bernard urged the faithful to identify with the Holy Family’s loving simplicity. By the 13th century Mary was always depicted holding Jesus and sometimes nursing him as well. The swaddling clothes are replaced by a naked Babe. St. Joseph is invariably close at hand.
In 1380, St. Bridget of Sweden had vision that affected how Nativity scenes were portrayed in European art. While praying in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, she saw the Birth of Christ in her vision as one that was quick and miraculous. It occurred while Mary was kneeling barefoot beside a pillar with St. Joseph absent in search of a light. The clean Child Jesus lay on the bare earth, glowing like a sun, while God the Father and the Holy Spirit looked down from Heaven.
Meditationes Vitae Christi (Meditations on the Life of Christ), one of the most important sources of Christian iconography in the later Middle Ages, added many details that came to be used in later depictions of the Nativity scene.
Late medieval art emphasized the poverty and discomfort of the Holy Family. In Italy the dirty stable is usually depicted as a cave. The shepherds who had come to adore Him are shabbily dressed in local garb and carrying staffs and bagpipes. St, Joseph is often providing a light for the scene.
Renaissance interest in antiquity produced some modified versions of the Nativity scene. The stable often incorporated classical ruins, which symbolizes that the old order of the world has ended with the coming of Christ. Buildings in the brightly lit landscape stand for the worlds of the Jews and the Romans. Instead of kneeling, Mary may sit on the ground holding her chubby and nude oversized Child.
One of the most famous Nativity scenes from this era is Sandro Boticelli’s “Mystic Nativity,” painted in 1501. While Mary kneels in adoration and St. Joseph sleeps, angels bearing olive branches and crowns dance hand in hand overhead, guiding shepherds to the stable.
In the wake of the Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, artists began moving away from the sublime and symbolic. The Nativity merged with the adoration of the shepherds. The scene is now night, lit only by the Infant’s own radiance, and everyone is obviously poor and humble. Great artists such as Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Tiepolo painted such scenes – and little has changed in the depiction of the Nativity since their work in the 17th and 18th centuries.