PICTURES OF THE BIBLE  © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008










The Birth of Jesus; Pietro CAVALLINI; 1291; mosaic; Santa Maria in Transtevere, Rome

Web Gallery of Art


The nativity represents Mary’s delivery. The Virgin is still lying while Joseph warms up the swaddled child, or lights up the cow-house since the birth has taken place at night. Added to this, we can see some angels, an ass, an ox… two midwives preparing or giving a bath to Jesus; which prefigures his baptism. Thus each character has a function and the scene is slightly dispersed.

Luke’s text only says that the birth took place at night and in a crib, that is to say a manger for beasts. As night was difficult to paint, only the star was kept until the 16th century.

The apocryphal gospels give some details missing in Luke: the grotto, the ass and the ox… and the legend of the two midwives. One believes in the virginity of Mary; the other is sceptical. She is punished: her hand is withered then healed when she goes near Jesus. This legend is suppressed by the Catholic Reformation which prefers symbols such as the lamb brought by shepherds, those that evoke Christ’s future sacrifice.



Nativity; 1524; miniature on vellum from a French Book of Hours; manuscript MMW 10 F 33; Museum Meermano Westreenianum, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague

Museum Meermanno


The Nativity represents the worship of the Christ Child. It figures a new-born baby, either naked and placed on some linen, or swaddled. He is brightly lit as if he himself were the source of light; Mary and Joseph worship him, most frequently on their knees.


Since the Gospel speaks about the coming of shepherds, they have their place in the Adoration of the child though they were ill-advised in the intimacy of the delivery. The shepherds are often musicians and so echo the angels. Like the magi they bring presents: a lamb, a flute and a shepherd’s crook, that is to say a long shepherd’s stick. Shepherdesses sometimes follow them, and offer some milk and poultry.


From the 17th century, this scene has been accompanied by many angels; beasts have disappeared or are hidden and Joseph points at Jesus for the shepherds, Mary remains in prayer.


The Adoration dominated then replaced the Nativity at the end of the Middle-Ages to exalt the Virgin Mary.

Artists wish to suppress the pains of the confinement that makes Mary an ordinary woman and they use the visions of St Bridget as a basis to render the birth supernatural. The Adoration becomes an epiphany, that is to say a manifestation of God, and a few works of art represent God the Father and the dove of the Holy Ghost above the Child God as on the day of Christ’s baptism.

It should not be confused with

Jesus’ birth can be mistaken for other nativities, that of Mary and that of John the Baptist. In both cases, they are actually scenes of delivery: the mother is lying while the child is looked after by other women who often give him a bath.


The Naming of John the Baptist; Rogier van der WEYDEN; 1455-60; oil on wood, left panel of the altarpiece of St John; Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Web Gallery of Art



The Birth of St John the Baptist; Artemisia GENTILESCHI; 1635; oil on canvas; Museo del Prado, Madrid

Web Gallery of Art


The nativity of John the Baptist, that is quite frequent, is recognisable by two details:


The presence of Zacharias, the child’s father, who writes on a tablet or on a sheet. Actually according to Luke, when the angel announced to Zacharias that he was about to have a child, he did not believe it and was punished by remaining dumb until the fulfilment of the promise. Thus in order to give the name of the child, he was obliged to write it: “And his mouth was opened immediately, and his tongue loosed” (Luke 1:64). This scene is capital and always present.


The importance given to the bath of the child is a hint at the one who will be the future “Baptist”. The bath is given by two women, one of whom, if she wears a nimbus, is the Virgin Mary. But the bath is not typical of John’s birth and not always present, as can be seen in Van der Weyden.



The Birth of Mary; Domenico GHIRLANDAIO; 1486-90; fresco; Capella Tomabuoni, Santa Maria Novella, Florence

Web Gallery of Art


The nativity of Mary is rarer; she is often given a bath and lily flowers can help to recognise the scene. Generally only women can be found in it: Anne, the mother, and other mothers of the family.

Here the scene is divided into three parts: on top left, Mary’s parents kiss each other. According to the Golden Legend, it was by this kiss that the child’s conception was achieved. Then Anne, pregnant, always recognisable by her headdress, goes forward with other women; and on the right, after her confinement, she attends the child’s bath.






The Birth of Jesus; Pietro CAVALLINI; 1291; mosaic; Santa Maria in Transtevere, Rome

Web Gallery of Art





The Gospel according to Luke, chapter 2

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) to be registered with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.

And so it was, that while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

An angel announces to the shepherds “For to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord...

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.” (Luke 2:4-14)




The narrative of the birth of Jesus is important since Christians believe it is God who becomes flesh, not by a mere miracle but, like any human being, by being born of a woman.


Whereas Joseph and Mary come from Nazareth in Galilee, the birth at Bethlehem in Judae makes Jesus a new David, also born at Bethlehem.







Mary’s confinement


The Birth of Jesus; Pietro CAVALLINI; 1291; mosaic; Santa Maria in Transtevere, Rome

Web Gallery of Art


Two nativities with the bath given to Jesus by the two midwives.


Nativity illustrator of the Bible by Petrus Comestor; 1372; miniature; manuscript MMW 10 B 23; Museum Meermanno Westreenianum, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague

 Museum Meermanno



The Nativity; Master of Salzburg; c. 1400; tempera on walnut; Galerie mittelalterlicher österreichischer Kunst, Vienna

Web Gallery of Art


500 years have elapsed between these two confinements



The Birth of Jesus; GIOTTO di Bondone; 1305; fresco; Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

Web Gallery of Art



Nativity or Te Tamari No Atua; Paul GAUGUIN; 1896; oil on canvas; Neue Pinakothek, Munich

Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum



The adoration of Jesus


Nativity; 1524; miniature on vellum from a French Book of Hours; manuscript MMW 10 F 33; Museum Meermano Westreenianum, Koninklijke Bibliotheek, The Hague

 Museum Meermanno


Nativities in complex and symbolic architectures.


Nativity; Francesco di Giorgio MATINI; 1490-95; wood, part of an altarpiece, San Domenico, Siena.

Web Gallery of Art



Nativity; Albrecht DÜRER; 1504; oil on panel, Alte Pinakothek, Munich

Web Gallery of Art


Jesus, worshipped, must be brightly lit; in Barocci, he is the source of light.


The Birth of Christ; Mariotto ALBERTINELLI; 1503; oil on wood; Galleria degli Uffizi, FlorenceNaissance du Christ; Mariotto ALBERTINELLI; 1503 huile sur bois, galerie des Offices, Florence

Web Gallery of Art



Nativity; Federico BAROCCI; 1597; oil on canvas, Museo del Prado, Madrid

CGFA - A Virtual Art Museum


The quest for realism in the characters and the scenery.


Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence; CARAVAGGIO; 1609; oil on canvas; Church of St Lawrence, Palermo (lost)

Web Gallery of Art



The Nativity; Hungarian MASTER M.S.; 1506; tempera on limewood, parish church, Antol, Slovakia

Web Gallery of Art


In some nativities, Joseph disappears; the virgin now alone can have a maternal gesture as in Grünewald.


Nativity with the Infant St John; Piero di COSIMO; c. 1500; oil on canvas; National Gallery of Art, Washington

 National Gallery Washington



Nativity; Matthias GRÜNEWALD; 1515; oil on wood; panel of the altarpiece of Isenheim, Musée d’Unterlinden, Colmar, France

Web Gallery of Art


The attention or distance of the parents for the Child God.


Nativity; Nicolas POUSSIN; 1650; oil on canvas; Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Munich

Olga's Gallery - Online Art Museum



Cleak on this picture, then at the bottom of the 1st page

Nativity; Edward BURNE-JONES and William MORRIS; stained glass window; Ponsoby church, England








Christmas is the feast of peace for the angels proclaim: “Glory to God and peace to men”; for centuries it was traditional to stop fights on that night; it was the truce of Christmas.

The birth of Jesus is celebrated on December 25th. The date was fixed by the Pope in 354; it replaced a Roman pagan feast in honour of the sun. Actually the feast of Christmas, which corresponds to the shortest days of the year, celebrates the victory of light over night.

Three masses were often said: that of the night, that of dawn and that of the day. The midnight mass has remained a tradition and when it was forbidden to eat before mass, it was followed by a feast or midnight supper; Alphonse Daudet wrote a nice tale about it.



The Christmas folklore

The building of a crib is a tradition dating back to St Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. It became very popular above all in Italy and in Provence where they used small mannequins or figures of earthenware personifying not only Mary, Joseph… the shepherds but also the inhabitants of the village busy at their occupations as if the Nativity repeated itself here and there each year.

The Infant Jesus is surrounded by the magi and the shepherds accompanied by many musicians; all of them are in a ruin which symbolises the old world that is about to be renewed by the birth of Christ.

Crib, 18th century;
Musée national du Moyen Âge,
Paris, France

Jesus was born in the Middle-East in a hot Mediterranean climate but the feast has been europeanised; one erects a fir-tree, a tradition of German origin, and covers it with snow. In the old days, a big log of wood burnt all night; there remains today a good pastry with the same shape. As for the presents, they originate from the New Year’s gifts of good omen. They were first offered to children, then to everybody. Christmas is a good example of the secularisation of a religious feast, that is to say, of the transfer from the religious domain to the social one with the whole economic dimension it involves.

The Christmas tree was popularised by the German Protestants who refused the Catholic crib. The fir-tree recalls the Tree of Life in the earthly paradise. It was in the 19th century that it spread over the whole of Europe. In France, it was Helen von Mecklemburg, married to the Duke of Orleans, who had a fir-tree decorated in the Tuileries Palace in 1837, then the Alsatians expelled after 1870 from their province, spread the fir-tree over the whole country.

Queen Victoria and her husband put the German Christmas tree
with its bright lights in the centre of the family celebration
 of Christmas at Windsor Castle.

And Father Christmas? The personification of a feast is fairly classic. Scandinavians celebrate St Lucia whose name means light, the inhabitants of the Rhone valley and of the plains of the North puts St Nicholas, feasted on December 6th, in charge of bringing sweetmeats to children. It was difficult to “folklorize” the Infant Jesus, and the name of Father Christmas “sires Noeus” appeared as early as the 13th century in a song by Adam de la Halle. But one had to wait until the 20th century to see the figure spread gradually over Europe. They are probably the German Protestants who brought their “Weihnachtsmann” or “Christmas Man” from the United States to dethrone the “papist” St Nicholas. Father Christmas, having become an American hero, came back to triumph in Europe.





BIBLE PICTURES   © Serge Ceruti and Gérard  Dufour 2008