The Image of Christmas > The Nativity Represented in Art

Posted On December 16, 2006

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It is fitting to start this account with this image, as in many ways, it shows the start of the Christmas story. It was painted by Fra Angelico (c.1390-1455) a Dominican friar, probably for the Dominican house of San Domenico in Fiesole, near Florence. It was bought in 1612 for the Duke of Lerma’s chapel in the Dominican church of Valladolid in Spain where it remained until its acquisition by the Prado.

Angelico shows us not only the moment of Christ’s Incarnation in the Annunciation scene, but the very reason for it, by painting the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden in the left background. An angel ushers Adam and Eve out of a lush garden, rendered almost like a tapestry. The couple are wearing clothes so the moment of shame – linked to consciousness of their nakedness and sin – has happened.

However, the most important part of the painting is clearly the foreground, where Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive and bear a child and she replies with humility ‘behold the handmaid of the Lord’. Mary’s acceptance of her role in the salvation of mankind, and Christ’s taking on her human flesh is crucial in the history of redemption and also in Eucharistic terms. The body of Christ, consumed in the Eucharist, is a human, fleshly body which was sacrificed on the cross for the sins of mankind. This difficult doctrinal message had to be rendered pictorially in a clear and readable fashion.

Angelico places the Annunciation in an architectural setting of a Renaissance loggia, very similar to the loggie and cloisters of his own convent of San Marco, designed by his contemporary, Michelozzo (1396-1472). A shaft of golden light falls from the left bearing the dove of the Holy Spirit. Mary is seated with her hands crossed over her chest, an open book on her knee. The open book symbolises the Word, which is being made flesh at that moment, and also recalls the prophecy of Isaiah. Sculpted in the spandrels of the loggia is the head of God the Father, so all three persons of the Trinity are present: God the Father in the sculpted relief, the dove of the Holy Spirit in the shaft of light, and Christ, by implication, in the womb of the Virgin.

The Nativity story is told in the Gospel of St. Luke (2:1-7). Joseph is called to Bethlehem to take part in a census. Mary accompanies him: ‘She was pregnant, and while they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her to have her baby. She gave birth to her first son, wrapped him in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger – there was no room for them to stay in the inn. ‘Luke then goes on to describe how angels announce the birth of Christ to nearby shepherds. We can see, however, that the actual account of the birth is very sketchy, and it was fleshed out by centuries of Christian tradition and by apocryphal gospels – i.e. those gospels which were not accepted as authentic by the Church.

Much of the detail of the Christmas tradition comes in fact from the apocryphal gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew, a text which appeared in the west in the 8th and 9th centuries. Some versions were preceded by letters which purported to come from Saint Jerome, testifying to the truth of its contents and claiming responsibility for its tranlsation. Some copies of the text attributed it to James, son of Joseph.  In this text, an angel tells Mary that parturition is near and orders her to enter into an underground cave.

At the entrance of Mary the grotto begins to glow like the sun. The Pseudo-Matthew then tells of how the Virgin gives birth to a son in the grotto, and angels circle him as soon as he his born, singing ‘Gloria to God in the highest and peace on earth to men of goodwill.’ A while before, Joseph had departed in search of midwives, but when he returns Mary has already given birth. Preachers often stressed how the Virgin was exempt from the pains of childbirth suffered by other women as a consequence of the sin of Eve and did not need the attentions of midwives. The midwives he brings are named Zelomi and Salomè but they stand outside the grotto afraid to enter because of the light. Zelomi enters and touches the virgin and exclaims on her virginity: ‘A Virgin has conceived, a Virgin has given birth, a Virgin remains. Salomè, outside, disbelieves and the story of the withered hand is told [Editor’s note: Testing Mary’s virginity with her finger, Salomè’s hand withered].

The shepherds are told of the birth by an angel, and an enormous star appears over the grotto. The third day after the birth, Mary leaves the grotto and enters a stable, she puts the child in a manger and the ox and the ass adore him. The author clearly added these elements, not found in scripture, to show that the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled. These details became absorbed in popular medieval texts like the thirteenth-century Golden Legend, written by the Dominican friar James of Varazze (Jacobus de Voragine), often described as a ‘medieval bestseller’.

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