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Nativity

infant century mary examples

Nativity means “birth” (from Latin: nativus ). Scenes depicting the births of a number of important or holy figures are often found in medieval art (e.g., the birth of Saint *John the Baptist; birth of the Virgin *Mary), but the Nativity of Jesus is among the earliest and most frequently represented subjects in Christian art through the Middle Ages. The event itself, however, is described only briefly in the Gospels of *Matthew and *Luke. Sources for the artistic iconography of the Nativity of Jesus primarily derive from apocryphal writings (e.g., the Protevangelium of James and the Evangelium of the Pseudo-Matthew ), as well as commentaries by early Christian and medieval theologians, the * Golden Legend , and later medieval mystical writings.


The earliest images of the Nativity (on sarcophagi and ivories of the fourth and fifth centuries) depict simply the infant Jesus, wrapped in cloths, lying in a basket or trough (the “manger” mentioned in Luke 2:7), while an ox and an ass stand nearby or peer down at the baby. These two animals are not mentioned in any of the early texts concerning the Nativity (until the Evangelium of the Pseudo-Matthew ) although they remain consistently represented in virtually all Nativity scenes. Their presence may be explained by the passages in *Habakkuk 3:2 and *Isaiah 1:3 (Isaiah: “The ox knows his owner and the ass his master’s crib”) which were related to the Nativity of Jesus by a number of early Christian theologians. One or two *shepherds, or a *prophet may also appear in these early scenes.


The scene of the *Adoration of the Magi is sometimes combined with early Nativity images; Mary will be shown seated, holding the infant on her lap while the magi approach or kneel before them. Both Mary and Saint *Joseph are included in Nativity scenes by the fifth century and may be shown seated on either side of the crib or manger. By the sixth and seventh century, Mary is   more frequently shown reclining. Following the descriptions in the Protevangelium of James , the setting for the birth may be indicated as a cave (which image continues in Byzantine examples), and the additional stories of the mid-wives (one Salome who doubted Mary’s virginity was stricken with a paralyzed hand, which was healed by touching the infant Jesus), and the scene of the bathing of the infant also appear. *Angels, shepherds, the magi en route, and a star emanating a beam of light down upon the infant are frequently included in Byzantine examples of the tenth and eleventh century. In the domed cruciform churches of Byzantium from the eleventh century, the Nativity (in fresco or mosaic) was customarily located in a prominent position in a pendentive (or niche) of the central dome.


Western examples from the ninth century onward tend to depict the location of the Nativity as a stable, shed, or other architectural structure, and by the twelfth century, the manger is often extremely prominent, elevated above (behind) the reclining figure of Mary, resembling a slab or altar upon which rests the swaddled infant (hence making a connection with the Eucharist and *Last Supper). In Romanesque and especially Gothic examples, Mary will often be shown reaching tenderly toward the infant. Sometimes she is shown nursing the baby . The midwives and the scene of the bathing of the infant tend to be deleted in these later western examples (because of criticism from western theologians), although angels, a seated Joseph, and the ox and ass remain. Later medieval mystical works (e.g., the thirteenth-century * Meditationes vitae Christi and the fourteenth-century visions of Saint Bridget of Sweden) influenced the development of later examples that show Mary kneeling in *prayer before the infant, who is in the manger or lying on the ground in a bundle of straw.

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