The Nativity of Jesus is one of the most depicted episodes in Western art over the centuries.
Practically all of those who are considered to be the great artists in the history of art have created works of art alluding to the theme of the Nativity of Jesus or with references to it.
But why this immediate identification?
Because, despite the differences in artistic techniques and styles, the various props and landscapes, the greater or lesser stylisation of the characters, there are symbols and iconographic elements associated with the Nativity of Jesus that we immediately identify.
Next we’ll see what these iconographic representations are and how they have been depicted throughout the history of art.
The Nativity depicts the birth of Jesus. We see the Holy Family represented – Jesus, Mary and Joseph. The location must be a stable (you can tell by the wooden structures and the animals, usually a donkey and a cow) or, in Byzantine art, a cave. There is a very bright star in the sky above Jesus, or above the stable or cave.
It’s worth noting that it’s only from the Baroque period onwards that Joseph begins to be included in the scene in a more direct way, so until then he’s represented somewhat separately. He is also progressively depicted as a middle-aged man, in contrast to the image of the older, grey-haired St Joseph.
Nativity Piero de la Francesca, 1470 – 1475, National Gallery
You can find out more about iconographic representations and their analysis in our blog section.
Description of the Nativity
On his way to Bethlehem for a census, Jesus is born in the middle of the journey, in a manger, because they couldn’t find any other shelter. The Holy Family is depicted in a stable or cave.
Some stories say that Mary gave birth in a cave and then, having found a stable, she sits down with Jesus and an ox/cow and an ass worship him.
The scheme of the compositions can place Joseph further away, as if asleep, and Mary with Jesus, lying down or sitting, in the stable/cave.
Mary and Joseph can be positioned as if they were adoring the Child.
Iconography of the Nativity
Wooden structure to symbolise the stable.
Ox/cow means kindness and peaceful strength, the Hebrew people, sacrifice.
Donkey/ass signifies humility, pagan peoples.
Rooster (sometimes present): announcing the arrival of the good news, a new era.
Luke 2: 1-7;
Detail of the cave: Protoevangelium of James 17-18;
Mention of the ox/cow and donkey: Pseudo Matthew 14; Isaiah 1:3 (symbolically).
Watch more representations of the Nativity in the video