The Nativity of Jesus has been inspiring Christian art since Christian art first began.
One of the most primitive Christian images, in fact, dating back to the third century and found in the Catacombs of Priscilla in Rome, is a picture of the Madonna cradling the infant Christ, while a figure beside her points with his finger. Among other things, this figure has been interpreted as Isaiah the prophet, who foretold the sign of the virgin bearing a child, and Balaam, the pagan prophet who foresaw the Christmas star in the Book of Numbers.
If we follow from here through the subsequent ages the long history of the countless treatments of the Christmas theme — in sculpture, mosaics, icons, illuminations, ivories, frescoes, and paintings, colored-glass, and, of course, the enchanting Neapolitan presepios and crèches Provençales with their cities of “santons” — we will receive an implicit and rather thorough education in the wide history of art. We will also learn a great deal about non-biblical traditions.
A good example and one of the most influential sources for Western paintings of Jesus’ birth, especially in late medieval northern Europe, comes from the private revelations made to the great mystic, St. Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373). She recounts her vision of the Lord’s Nativity in terms that became a verbal icon for later painters to graphically realize.
The virgin knelt down with great veneration in an attitude of prayer, and her back was turned to the manger. … And while she was standing thus in prayer, I saw the child in her womb move and suddenly in a moment she gave birth to her son, from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendor, that the sun was not comparable to it, nor did the candle that St. Joseph had put there give any light at all, the divine light totally annihilating the material light of the candle. … I saw the glorious infant lying on the ground naked and shining. His body was pure from any kind of soil and impurity. Then I heard also the singing of the angels, which was of miraculous sweetness and great beauty.
Following this miraculous parturition, the Virgin, joined by St. Joseph, kneels in adoration. This worshipful posture (which predates St. Bridget and is ultimately of Franciscan origin) is characteristic of the Western devotional tradition, whereas in the East, icons of Christ’s Nativity always show the Theotokos (Mother of God) reclining.
A beautiful, representative rendition of St. Bridget’s vision of the luminous little Lord is Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (1465–1495), a Dutch painter who died very young and whose last name means “to St. John,” probably reflecting his religious consecration as a lay brother in the Knights of St. John (Hospitallers).
The entire source of light here is the radiant, newborn Light of the World, who glows upon the wondering, bowed face of his Blessed Mother. St. Joseph, half hidden in the darkness, holds no candle to be stripped of its “material light,” but the same effect is played out subtly in the background.
The tiny flame of fire, where the shepherds in the field are warming themselves by night, is outshone by the glorious radiance of the angel announcing the good news of peace on earth. The heavenly angels themselves, of course, receive their light from the one they contemplate in reverent awe, feasting on his glory at the manger.
It is interesting that the huge bovine face hovering over the feedbox does not rejoice in the same white clothing of light as Mary and the heavenly hosts, as if the birth of the Daystar first dawns in its splendor upon saintly spirits and rational souls.
The eclipse of terrestrial by celestial light is achieved in another fashion in the Nativity of French baroque painter, Georges de La Tour (1593–1652).
Now St. Joseph holds but shields the candle, deflecting the light source onto the peacefully sleeping swaddling child, a bound-up little Lazarus already hinting at his resurrection. This technical solution on the part of de La Tour creates an extraordinary mood of serenity, warmth, and tender affection. In this gentle light all can equally bask (even the lamb), but Mary’s uniquely poised and stately adoration beams in direct counterpoint to the shadowed Joseph and dominates the entire grouping.
The candle technique is, in fact, a kind of signature of de La Tour, who belonged to the school of the Caravaggisti (followers of Caravaggio), who loved to play with light and shadow, like the Renaissance master who in his own oeuvre routinely played with the lights and shadows of covered candles.
The same artist’s Newborn Christ thus shows same convention, as a maid softly bends back the candle’s soft rays to illumine the little Lord. The same stark contrast, already seen, of Mary’s bright red dress and Jesus’ equally bright, white wrappings, together symbolize the human flesh and blood, which are Mary’s gift to her child, and the sinless, spotless human nature the Eternal Word adopted.