In the next few weeks, most of us will be receiving an influx of Christmas cards. While many of these will feature cardinals in the snow or a Victorian Santa Claus, many others will be reproductions of Renaissance paintings of the Nativity, the subject that was the origin of the feast of Christmas.
We are so familiar with many of these images that we often look at them without really looking. We may note the familiar shepherds and wise men as they surround the Holy Family in the stable, or recognise the star. But as we hold the 4-by-6 inch card printed on heavy paper, sometimes complicated by an embossed gold frame or other enhancement, we may not think about the grandeur or substance of the original painting. We may easily overlook the artist’s purpose and the meaning of the details. We enjoy the beauty of colour and form, the sweetness of the mother and child, and then we put the card on a mantelpiece to be seen by other family members — and perhaps to remind ourselves to put a card in the mail to the sender.
Although the Virgin and Child and the three wise men were painted on the walls of catacombs in Rome in the early years of the Church, the Nativity, or birth of Christ (as well as the events surrounding it, such as the shepherds’ visit to the stable, or the three wise men) became a favourite subject in Christian art by the 14th century — and may be said to remain so today. One of the reasons for this fascination with the scene was the devotion practiced by St Francis of Assisi. Around 1220 he celebrated Christmas by setting up the first presepio or crèche in the town of Greccio near Assisi. He used real animals to create a living scene so that the worshippers could contemplate the birth of the child Jesus in a direct way, making use of the senses, especially sight.
Renaissance paintings were produced primarily for two purposes. The first was to adorn a public space such as a church, where the picture could expound the doctrine of the Church to an audience which was largely illiterate. The second use was for private meditation in a home or to take on a journey, where the religious subject could inspire the viewer to contemplate the scene in such a way as to enter into it — to imagine being part of the holy event in order to draw closer to the meaning of the life of Christ.
The gospels were not the only sources for the birth of Jesus. We also need to look also at what are known as the “apocryphal” gospels — collections of writings on the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary and the apostles that were not included in the canonical Bible because they were not written until well after the time of the witnesses to Christ’s life. The information they provide (usually a kind of embroidering on the information in the four canonical gospels) is not considered historically reliable. They have not been suppressed by the Church (as claimed by a recent popular thriller on the history of the Church) but are rather seen as pious tales. In the Renaissance, some of them (particularly the Protoevangelion of James and a book known as the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew) were widely known and used as source material for narrative in painting. The Golden Legend, published it in the late 13th century by a Jacopo da Voragine is another important text containing lives of the Saints and the Holy Family.
In order to understand the images better, we can treat them as small plays (and in fact, many of them may have been inspired by the “mystery” plays of the time performed on such feast days as Christmas and Easter.) We begin by analysing the setting, the players and the action and finally look for symbolic details that comment on the subject. Pictorial language of the Renaissance was rife with symbols. Details that seem to our more practical age as everyday elements of nature or household objects often had a secondary meaning. While a painting was meant to be a realistic scene of an event, it had a second layer as a theological discourse on the subject for those who knew the accepted symbolic language.
The setting
We all know that Jesus was born in a stable. But when we look closely at the two gospels in which the birth of Jesus is mentioned (Luke and Matthew), we see only that the baby was laid in a manger. Why, then, is the Holy Family often shown sheltered in a cave? There is no mention of the cave in the canonical gospels, but it is mentioned in several of the apocryphal books known as the infancy narratives. This setting is not inconsistent with the stable mentioned in Matthew, as apparently there were caves around the outskirts of Bethlehem, and some of them used to house domestic animals. At times, the stable is clearly a ruin, to represent the end of the old covenant and the beginning of the new. In the Portinari Altarpiece by the artist Hugo van der Goes (which has the visit of the shepherds as its subject), the symbol of the stable as the old covenant is emphasised by the relief of a harp of David over a doorway. It reminds us that Jesus is the promised Messiah from the house of David.
The Holy Family
When we buy a nativity set for our homes, the first unit usually comes as the Virgin and Child with St. Joseph, known as the Holy Family.
Many times we see Mary kneeling on the ground in front of the baby, who lies on the floor of the cave, either naked or in the swaddling clothes mentioned in Matthew and Luke. Sometimes we may even wonder why the mother is praying while her newborn lies naked on the cold floor. The reason is that this staging of the scene is taken from the writings of St. Bridget of Sweden. In the 13th century, she made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and was given visions regarding the life of Christ, including the Nativity. In one vision, she “saw” the Virgin prepare to give birth by removing her mantle and kneeling down with her hair streaming over her shoulders. The child Jesus was born by emanating from her womb to the floor of the stable, without having to go through the traditional means of birth. Therefore, the Church maintains the Virginity of Mary before, during and after the birth of her son.
Joseph is almost universally portrayed as an old man with a grey beard until at least around 1600. Again, this circumstance comes from the apocryphal book of James that tells us that Joseph was married previously, had children, and was chosen to be Mary’s protector because of his virtue and venerable age. He is often shown asleep, or with his head resting on his arm, to emphasise that he was peripheral to the event, since he was not the biological father of Jesus. Later on in history, theologians (and artists) realised that it would have been appropriate for Joseph to be of an age more consistent with his young wife — his chastity did not need the excuse of old age. Often he is shown holding a candle or a lantern—mentioned in the apocryphal books—which is then outshone by a light emanating from the baby, the Light of the World.
The ox and the ass
Sometimes the next figures to appear after the Holy Family are the animals in the stable, which are traditionally a donkey and an ox. Neither is mentioned in the canonical gospels, but in seems likely that the Virgin Mary in her advanced state of pregnancy may have ridden to Bethlehem on a donkey. Sometimes the animals symbolise the Old and New Testaments. This connection comes from a passage in Isaiah, the book in the Old Testament with the most prophetic passages about the birth of the Messiah. “The ox knows his master, the ass knows his master’s crib” (Isaiah 1:3). The book of Pseudo Matthew interprets this verse to symbolise the Gentiles (who recognise Christ as the Messiah) and the unconverted Jews (who are caught up in a more materialistic understanding of who the Messiah was to be and do not recognise him when he comes). In Hugo van der Goes’s Adoration of the Shepherds, the animals act out this interpretation, but not in the version by Domenico Ghirlandaio, where both animals look at the baby Jesus. Other traditions regarding the ox and ass are that they knelt in adoration of the Christ Child, that they piously refrained from eating the hay in the manger, or that they warmed him with their breath.
The shepherds and Magi
Image courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art
We know from the gospel of Luke that on the night of Jesus’ birth angels came to some shepherds in nearby fields, and told them that a Saviour was born in Bethlehem. They would find him lying in a manger. The narrative is straightforward, and the shepherds’ adoration of the Christ Child is a common variation on the Nativity scene. Sometimes, as in the versions by both Van der Goes and Ghirlandaio, there are three shepherds, as if to balance the three Magi or kings. A nativity scene will often show the moment of the angelic announcement in the background.
The Magi (or “three kings” or “three wise men”) are identified as Magi in the gospel of Matthew. Magi are priests of Zoroastrianism, a monotheistic religion of Persia at the time of Christ. Although most Zoroastrians live elsewhere in the world now, they still look to the stars to foretell coming events. No number was mentioned in the text, but because the text mentions three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh), it became traditional to have three givers. Later (possibly around 200, in the writings of Tertullian) the three Magi are transformed into Kings, and as such, they represent the powerful and wealthy.
The wise men create various symbolic patterns. First, since they are rich, they contrast with the poor shepherds. As non-Jews, they show that Jesus came to save Jew and Gentile alike, as well as the rich and the poor. In the late third century Origen gave the kings the names by which we now know them: Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. By the fourteenth century, painters were to take the typology of the Kings further. Often they represented the three continents of the known world: Europe, Asia and Africa. His dark skin identifies the African king, but the Asian king was represented by a complicated hat or turban, often placed on the ground in the front of the painting for emphasis.
The kings frequently were used to represent three ages of man and are painted as a youth, a middle-aged man and an old man with a grey beard. The kings and their entourage gave the artist an opportunity to record the sumptuous trappings of the contemporary upper class. In Giovanni di Paolo’s Adoration of the Magi, we can see a crowd of people accompanying the kings wearing rich fabrics and keeping leopards and monkeys, playthings of the wealthy Florentines who collected the exotic. Sometimes the three kings were used to glorify the family of the benefactor, as in the Botticelli Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi where the kings are portraits of members of the Medici family.
Other personages
The Giovanni di Paolo painting is one of many in which there are figures placed in prominent places that do not seem to fit into the story. At the left are two women, who are in a group with the holy family rather than with the kings’ followers. They are two midwives who do not appear in the New Testament, but are again from the apocryphal texts. St Joseph went out to find a midwife to assist at the birth of Jesus, but by the time he returned with one, the baby was born. The midwife, marvelling that a virgin should have given birth, ran to tell her friend, Salome, who did not believe her. For her disbelief, her hand withered, but was restored to health when she picked up the Child. The Golden Legend gives them the names Zebel and Salome.
Other figures appear in Nativity scenes. The wings of the Portinari Altarpiece have portraits of members of the Portinari family which commissioned the painting kneeling in adoration with their children. The figures standing behind them are their patron saints. The donors are on a smaller scale than any of the holy figures, as are the angels in the central panel who are dressed in liturgical garments. Angels are not mentioned as being present at the Nativity, but tradition and outside texts put them there — logically following the shepherds on their journey and worshipping alongside them.
A fresco by Fra Angelico and his workshop depicts the Nativity with two saints (St Catherine of Alexandria and St Peter Martyr) from other periods in history as if they were taken to the scene in Bethlehem in a time machine to worship the Christ Child. The fresco was painted for the cell of a Dominican monk at the monastery of San Marco in Florence, so it is not surprising that a Dominican, St. Peter Martyr, occupies the foreground — as if leading the occupant of the cell in contemplation.
Plants and flowers
Since the Nativity scene is usually set at the mouth of a cave or a stable, it is not surprising for plants to be part of the setting. Flowers and plants were not included in Renaissance painting simply because they are pleasing to the eye. A complex symbolic language was incorporated into them which underscored the Christian meaning of the event. The daisies in the foreground of Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Shepherds in Florence represent the innocence of the Christ Child, and are often included in paintings of the infant Jesus.
Other plants in the Ghirlandaio Adoration are, not coincidentally, included in the Portinari Altarpiece. The iris, violet and wheat appear in both paintings. The iris (named for the rainbow) serves as a message of peace between God and man (since the rainbow appeared at the end of the great flood in the Old Testament). Therefore, in the context of the birth of Christ, it is a symbol of salvation. The iris was also known as a “sword lily” because of the shape of its leaves. The suggestion of the sword is to remind the viewer of the prophecy of Simeon at the time Jesus was presented in the temple. He says to the Virgin Mary: “a sword will pierce your heart” (Luke 2:35) looking forward to her grief at the Crucifixion. It was customary in the Renaissance in almost any picture of the Virgin and Child to have some reminder of the Cross, the sad aftermath of the joyful moment being portrayed. The violet is a symbol of humility, and can be read as a symbol of the humility of the second person of the Trinity in deigning to take on humanity, or for the humility of his mother. (The Virgin sitting or kneeling on the ground is a further statement of her humility.) The wheat is a symbol for bread and the Eucharist, but also refers to the name of the town “Bethlehem,” which means “house of bread.”
The Portinari Altarpiece emphasised the floral attributes by placing them front and centre in the main panel. They seem to form a still life that can be separated from the action of the painting. In addition to the flowers, there are columbines in a glass vase, and orange lilies. The columbines (whose name derives from “dove”) are symbolic of the Holy Spirit. The lilies are a traditional symbol for the purity of the Virgin Mary — the red colour associates them with the red fleur-de-lis that is the symbol for the city of Florence, the home of the Portinari family. The clear glass vase is a further symbol of the purity of the Virgin’s womb.
Multiple levels
We have to be careful about reading things into paintings that aren’t there. But we should be aware that painters in the Renaissance had a trove of stories and symbols about the Nativity and other Christian subjects that are no longer common knowledge. The symbolic character of players and objects are not always made obvious, but it is one of the charms of these paintings that the symbols play an equally important role as part of a visually believable scene. The purpose of these works of art, whether intended for a church or a private home, was to aid the viewer’s contemplation and understanding of the event. One was supposed to use the naturalistic detail to imagine being present at the birth of Christ and to join the worshippers in adoring and contemplating him as he lay in the manger or on the ground or in his mother’s lap in Bethlehem. The shepherds, angels, midwives and Magi bring to mind the events surrounding his birth and the consequences for mankind. The architecture, animals, plants and other details were carefully chosen to give the viewer doctrinal points to muse on — so that the picture could be appreciated at length and on multiple levels.
Sarah Phelps Smith is an art historian and critic who has taught at the University of Delaware and Swarthmore College. She lives in Ohio with her family of eight children.

Sarah Phelps Smith, Ph.D., is an art historian and critic who has taught at University level. She lives in Ohio and takes students to study Renaissance art on site in Italy.