December 21, 2018

Origins of the Icon of the Nativity of Christ

Nativity of Christ, Chora Church, Istanbul, 14th cent.

By John Sanidopoulos

The most familiar artistic depictions of the Nativity of Christ include the full cast of characters from the New Testament infancy narratives: Joseph the betrothed and the mother Mary, a swaddled baby lying in a manger, shepherds, magi, a bright star and angels. Yet the oldest known representations (from around 320 A.D.) focus primarily on the arrival of the magi. These images depict the Virgin Mary, seated on a high-backed chair, holding the baby Jesus on her lap and receiving the gift-bearing visitors. The Magi are shown wearing Persian dress of trousers and Phrygian caps, usually in profile, advancing in step with their gifts held out before them. These images adapt Late Antique poses for barbarians submitting to an Emperor, and presenting golden wreaths, and indeed relate to images of tribute-bearers from various Mediterranean and ancient Near Eastern cultures going back many centuries. The earliest are from catacomb paintings and sarcophagus reliefs of the fourth century.

Magi bearing gifts, fourth-century sarcophagus, Rome

The earliest representations of the Nativity itself (from the fourth century) are very simple, just showing the infant Christ, tightly wrapped, lying near the ground in a trough or wicker basket. The ox and ass are always present, even when Mary or any other human is not. Although they are not mentioned in the Gospel accounts they were regarded as confirmed by Scripture from some Old Testament verses, such as Isaiah 1:3: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib", and Habakkuk 3:2: "In the midst of the two beasts wilt thou be known," and their presence was never questioned by theologians. They were regarded by Augustine, Ambrose and others as representing the Jewish people, weighed down by the Law (the ox), and the pagan peoples, carrying the sin of idolatry (the ass). Christ had arrived to free both from their burdens. Mary is only shown when the scene is the Adoration of the Magi, but often one of the shepherds, or a prophet with a scroll, is present. From the end of the fifth century (following the Third Ecumenical Synod of Ephesus), Mary becomes a fixture in the scene.

Fourth-century sarcophagus, Milan; one of the earliest Nativity images

While these depictions of the Nativity were evolving, the segment of the Roman Empire that was still pagan were also representing famous births, that predate the standard depictions of the Nativity of Christ. For example, in a Roman villa near Baalbek, Lebanon a fourth century mosaic of the Birth of Alexander the Great at first sight almost exactly resembles what later became a standard depiction of the Nativity of Christ. This mosaic, today in the National Museum of Beirut, shows the newborn Alexander the Great being bathed in a circular fluted basin by a female figure labelled ‘Nymphe’, while his mother Olympias reclines on a bed watched by an attendant. In another scene, to the left, a snake is approaching Olympias, as King Philip of Macedon sits outside the scene. All the figures in the mosaic have name-labels, a common characteristic of mosaics of the Greek East of the third to fifth centuries. In this case the name-labels seem to serve an obvious and important purpose: how otherwise is the viewer to recognize the scene as the birth of Alexander rather than Achilles or Dionysius. At the same time the borrowing of the iconographic schema hints at analogies between Alexander, Achilles and Dionysius. The reclining of Olympias and the bathing of Alexander later were used in the depictions of the Nativity of Christ, as well as the father standing off to the side, which indicates the divine origin of the one being born. Plutarch states that the night before her wedding, Alexander’s mother Olympias dreamed a bolt of lightning fell upon her womb. Later Alexander’s father Philip supposedly saw a serpent lying next to her. Philip suspected his wife had been impregnated by the serpent, which was a form taken by the god Zeus, and his love for her dwindled.

Birth of Alexander the Great

Similar characteristics can be seen in the images of the Birth of Achilles. Achilles was the son of the Nereid (a sea nymph or female spirit of sea waters) Thetis and of Peleus, the king of the Myrmidons. Zeus and Poseidon had been rivals for the hand of Thetis until Prometheus, the fore-thinker, warned Zeus of a prophecy (originally uttered by Themis, goddess of divine law) that Thetis would bear a son greater than his father. For this reason, the two gods withdrew their pursuit, and had her wed Peleus. When Achilles was born, Thetis bathed baby Achilles in the River Styx to make him immortal (but she held him by a heel). In the House of Theseus in Paphos of Cyprus there is an early fifth century mosaic depicting the birth and bathing of Achilles. Most likely it shows the family of the owner of the house watching the bathing of a baby. The family head was portrayed as Peleus, Achilles' father, but at the same time as a Roman governor, holding a sceptre and dressed in a crimson robe, another sign of command. In the traditional pagan iconography goddesses were portrayed naked, but Thetis and her housemaids wear long robes as nakedness had a negative connotation in the Christian world. Similarities between this image and the later standard images of the Nativity of Christ are similar with that of the birth of Alexander. Thetis is reclining like the Virgin Mary, while Peleus is removed from the scene, and the infant is bathed.

Birth of Achilles

Also in Paphos is the House of Aion, where a fourth century mosaic depicts the Birth of Dionysius. When this mosaic was made roughly half of the population of the Roman Empire had embraced the Christian faith and the other half was still attached to traditional beliefs. By eliminating the wings on the head of Hermes (Mercury) and by changing the names of the personages this mosaic could represent the Adoration of the Magi.

Birth of Dionysius

It seems clear that pagan images like these served to inspire the development of the imagery of the Nativity of Christ, especially regarding the depictions of Mary reclining, Joseph standing outside the scene, and the Christ Child being bathed. The standard depiction of the Nativity of Christ probably began to take shape in sixth century Palestine, specifically in Bethlehem at the Basilica of the Nativity of Christ, and took its standard form after Iconoclasm in the ninth century.

Vision of St. Bridget of Sweden

This type of nativity composition changed dramatically in the late fourteenth century West, following the mystical vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373). According to Bridget’s vision, while Joseph waited outside the manger, Mary knelt, turned her back to the manger, and in the midst of a rapturous prayer suddenly produced her child in a burst of light. The naked, radiant baby needed no bathing (his body was thus free from impurities). Recognizing her infant’s divine nature, Mary turned and immediately knelt to worship him. Thus, images of Mary and Joseph kneeling, hands clasped and heads bowed before their divine child, became the standard presentation of the Holy Family in the West. Most of these compositions show the child naked in order to emphasize his humanity but also as a glowing source of light, in order to express his divine nature. This imagery can sometimes be seen in modern depictions of the Nativity in the East, influenced by the West, but the East still primarily maintains the traditional imagery as it natural evolved without the influence of the vision of Saint Bridget.