The First Christmas in Art

Gabrielle Doyle

The story of the first Christmas has inspired artists to create affectionate, gentle and intimate images which can be enjoyed by everyone. The sources are the Gospels of Luke and Matthew and the two “unofficial biographies” of Jesus: the Protoevangelium of St. James and the Pseudo Matthew.


Fra Angelico. The Annunciation 1430-32      Museo del Prado, Madrid

This is where the Christmas story begins. On the left, Adam and Eve are expelled from Paradise, the forbidden fruit at their feet. But God promised a Saviour, who could “open the gates of heaven” again. Throughout the centuries prophets foretold the coming of this Saviour.

On the right of the painting the Archangel Gabriel delivers his message to Mary: she is to be the mother of the promised Saviour.

In the top left corner, God’s hand sends down a dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, travelling down a light shaft to Mary.  

Luke, 2: 1-5“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.  This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, 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 betrothed, who was with child.

We look down from a high vantage point onto a Brabant village set in a snowy landscape where people are congregating to register and pay their taxes.  Setting the imminent birth of Christ in a contemporary landscape was a way of conveying that what happened in Bethlehem is still relevant today.  


Luke 2: 6-7: And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn”.

On this icon the traditional Nativity scene occupies the upper portion, (shown here). Mary and the child are in a cave in a mountain. The Gospels specify that Jesus was laid in a manger, a food trough for animals but it is not specified where it was.  In Bethlehem, animals were normally kept in caves.

In the upper register heavenly hosts of angels are singing and rejoicing.

In the middle register more angels gather around to see the infant, who is held under the tender gaze of his mother. The ox and the ass look on attentively.

To the right an angel announces the Good News to two shepherds. 

In the lower register, Joseph is pondering on the events. In the middle two midwives are washing the infant Jesus. The midwives story is in the Protoevangelium of St. James. After the birth of Jesus, one of the midwives (her name is not given) went out of the cave and met the second midwife, Salome, and told her about the miraculous birth. Salome did not believe her. On examining Mary, her hand withers. She prays for forgiveness. An angel appears and tells her to touch the Child. She touches the child and her hand is healed.  


Hugo van der Goes. Central panel of the Portinari Altarpiece 1476 -79. Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Tommaso Portinari, the Medici’s representative in Bruges, commissioned this painting for the Church of St. Egidio in Florence.  

The empty palace of King David is in the background.  Old ruined buildings are frequently seen in Nativity scenes. They represent the Old Covenant with God which is being replaced by the New Covenant, Jesus.

According to a vision of St. Bridget of Sweden, immediately after the birth, Mary laid the new born babe on straw and knelt down and adored him.

In the foreground the sheaf of wheat refers to the Last Supper and the Eucharist; the orange lilies are a symbol of the Passion; the seven columbine flowers the seven sorrows of Mary. The angels are wearing priestly vestments, a reference to the future liturgy.

This painting has been described as the first great nocturnal scene in European painting

The chiaroscuro effect is produced by the powerful light emanating from the child who is the “Light of the World.”


Matthew Ch.2, 1-2, 11   Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, Where is he who has been King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.


And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down, and worshipped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh.

Later these wise men receive the names, Gaspar, Balthasar and Melchior. They represent humankind and as such they are depicted as differing in age and later from different continents.

In this mosaic the age difference is apparent and the names are written above the figures.


DÜRER, Albrecht      Adoration of the Magi    1504 Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

The ruined buildings depict the old Covenant, now superseded by Christ. In the background a city climbs up a cone shaped mountain.

The ornate caskets are a nod to Durer’s training as a goldsmith.  The king shown in profile is thought to be a self-portrait of Durer.


The light emanates from the child who is happily playing with coins he has received. Mary’s face is said to be inspired by the face of Ruben’s first wife Isabelle Brant

A boy looks out at us, inviting us to come and take part in this event.

Your favourite Nativity painting may not be here, so over the Christmas season, why not look for it and enjoy it!

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