An Ox, an Ass … a Dragon? Sorry, there were no Animals in the Bible’s Nativity Scene

An Ox, an Ass … a Dragon? Sorry, there were no Animals in the Bible’s Nativity Scene

From nativity plays to crèche sets to Christmas cards, animals are ubiquitous in our vision of the birth of Christ – but according to the Bible, not a single animal was there. Where did all these animals come from, and why are they now so central to the story?

Only two parts of the Bible talk about Jesus’ birth: the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Mark and John skip over Jesus’ infancy and head straight to his adult life. So how similar are the narratives of Matthew and Luke to the version familiar to anyone who has attended a Christmas church service or children’s nativity play?

Christmas carols such as ‘ Away In A Manger ’ sing about the cattle lowing – and in ‘ Little Drummer Boy ’ they keep time. There’s even a song called ‘ Little Donkey ’ about the beast that carries Mary to Bethlehem in our vision of the Christmas story. But do these images appear in the actual Gospels?

All of our stable and manger imagery actually comes from just one Gospel – Luke’s . In Matthew’s Gospel, Mary and Joseph seem to already live in Bethlehem, and Jesus is born in a house . The magi – the three wise kings – visit Jesus in this version. Luke, however, gives us an account of the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem – and the visit of the shepherds.

The first animal we might expect to meet in the Christmas story is the dutiful donkey, the faithful beast of burden carrying the pregnant Mary on its back. But you may want to sit down, dear reader, for this next part. Mary did not ride to Bethlehem on a donkey.

Nowhere in any Gospel does it say that Mary did anything but walk. The whole journey is given in three lines: Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem and while they were there, she went into labor. No mention of transportation .

The earliest nativity scene in art, from a fourth century Roman-era sarcophagus. ( G.dallorto)

Now you will say, well, what about the sheep? “While shepherds watched their flocks by night” is the refrain we hear. But that’s from a carol – the biblical text doesn’t say that the shepherds took any sheep with them when they went to go and find Mary and Joseph and the baby.

The shepherds go to Bethlehem and find, as Luke says: “Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger.” But the Bible makes no mention of animals adoring the Christ Child.

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Unreliable Narrative for the Nativity Story

Luke says Mary put the baby Jesus in a manger but the place where she gave birth was not necessarily a stable . Mixed-use space, where domestic animals such as sheep and cattle shared living and eating quarters with humans, was the norm in the area at the time. So it would have been normal for Joseph’s relatives to share space with their animals. But once again the text doesn’t say that a single animal was present at Jesus’ birth or afterwards.

But our vision of Luke’s account has embedded itself in the imaginations of artists and performers, as our current nativity plays attest. Every child gets to be an animal visiting the baby Jesus, even though there isn’t a single animal mentioned in the Gospel accounts.

Mary arriving on a donkey. Toppling of the Pagan Idols (Flight into Egypt). Bedford Master

So if the Bible is surprisingly silent about the animals’ role in the night’s events, where do they all come from? The answer is that Luke’s version won over the imaginations of lots of early Christian writers, although with some differences.

An early Gospel story that didn’t make it into the Bible, known as the Proto-Gospel of James , was written in the second century AD and describes in great detail Joseph and Mary’s journey and Jesus’ birth away from the comforts of home. It’s here that we finally get our loyal donkey: the text says that Joseph saddles up a donkey and puts Mary on it to ride the long journey to register in the census (James 17.2).

James sets the birth in a cave the couple pass on their way rather than a domestic space. Mary says to her betrothed: “Joseph, take me down from the donkey. The child inside me is pressing on me to come out” (James 17.3).

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Did Mary give birth in a cave? Giorgione Adoration of the Shepherds, National Gallery of Art.

Joseph leaves Mary in the unoccupied cave and goes off to find a midwife. A later Latin text from the seventh to eighth century AD, called the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew , takes James’ version of the nativity story and elaborates on it – in this version, Mary leaves the cave after Jesus is born and takes him to a stable. Finally, the famous ox and ass enter into the scene, bowing down to worship Jesus. This well-known scene is still immortalized on Christmas cards thousands of years later – but it was never included in the Bible text.

Enter the Dragon?

Some of these apocryphal stories go even further. If ordinary animals worshipping the Christ Child seems impressive, how much more extraordinary is it that Pseudo-Matthew includes wild animals, including lions, leopards – and even dragons – coming to pay homage to the baby Jesus. Pseudo-Matthew writes:

And behold, suddenly many dragons came out of the cave … Then the Lord, even though he was not yet two years old, roused himself, got to his feet, and stood in front of them. And the dragons worshipped him. When they finished worshipping him, they went away … So too both lions and leopards were worshipping him and accompanying him in the desert … showing them the way and being subject to them; and bowing their heads with great reverence they showed their servitude by wagging their tails.

Wild beasts bowed down and worshipped him. ( Frankieleo)

Images of animals behaving peacefully is a frequent image in the Bible. They are meant to symbolize a time of peace, so it’s no wonder our idea of the birth of the Prince of Peace includes animals. Surprisingly, we don’t get too many dragons, leopards, or lions included in Christmas nativity sets. But seeing as the ox and the donkey are just as unbiblical, why not?


Nativity scene

In the Christian tradition, a nativity scene (also known as a manger scene, crib, crèche ( / k r ɛ ʃ / or / k r eɪ ʃ / ), or in Italian presepio or presepe, or Bethlehem) is the special exhibition, particularly during the Christmas season, of art objects representing the birth of Jesus. [1] [2] While the term "nativity scene" may be used of any representation of the very common subject of the Nativity of Jesus in art, it has a more specialized sense referring to seasonal displays, either using model figures in a setting or reenactments called "living nativity scenes" (tableau vivant) in which real humans and animals participate. Nativity scenes exhibit figures representing the infant Jesus, his mother, Mary, and her husband, Joseph.

Other characters from the nativity story, such as shepherds, sheep, and angels may be displayed near the manger in a barn (or cave) intended to accommodate farm animals, as described in the Gospel of Luke. A donkey and an ox are typically depicted in the scene, and the Magi and their camels, described in the Gospel of Matthew, are also included. Many also include a representation of the Star of Bethlehem. Several cultures add other characters and objects that may or may not be Biblical.

Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first live nativity scene in 1223 in order to cultivate the worship of Christ. He himself had recently been inspired by his visit to the Holy Land, where he'd been shown Jesus's traditional birthplace. The scene's popularity inspired communities throughout Christian countries to stage similar exhibitions.

Distinctive nativity scenes and traditions have been created around the world, and are displayed during the Christmas season in churches, homes, shopping malls, and other venues, and occasionally on public lands and in public buildings. Nativity scenes have not escaped controversy, and in the United States of America their inclusion on public lands or in public buildings has provoked court challenges.


Contents

A nativity scene takes its inspiration from the accounts of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. [3] [4] Luke's narrative describes an angel announcing the birth of Jesus to shepherds who then visit the humble site where Jesus is found lying in a manger, a trough for cattle feed.( Luke 2:8-20 ) Matthew's narrative tells of "wise men" (Greek: μαγοι , romanized: magoi ) who follow a star to the house where Jesus dwelt, and indicates that the Magi found Jesus some time later, less than two years after his birth, rather than on the exact day.( Mat.2:1-23 ) Matthew's account does not mention the angels and shepherds, while Luke's narrative is silent on the Magi and the star. The Magi and the angels are often displayed in a nativity scene with the Holy Family and the shepherds.( Luke 2:72:122:17 )

The earliest nativity scene has been found in the early Christian catacomb of Saint Valentine. [5] It traces to A.D. 380. [6]

Saint Francis of Assisi, who is now commemorated on the calendars of the Catholic, Lutheran and Anglican liturgical calendars, is credited with creating the first live nativity scene [7] [8] [9] [10] in 1223 at Greccio, central Italy, [8] [11] in an attempt to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than upon "material things". [12] [13] The nativity scene created by Saint Francis, [7] is described by Saint Bonaventure in his Life of Saint Francis of Assisi written around 1260. [14] Staged in a cave near Greccio, Saint Francis' nativity scene was a living one [8] with humans and animals cast in the Biblical roles. [15] Pope Honorius III gave his blessing to the exhibit. [16]

Such reenactment exhibitions became hugely popular and spread throughout Christendom. [15] Within a hundred years every Catholic church in Italy was expected to have a nativity scene at Christmastime. [11] Eventually, statues replaced human and animal participants, and static scenes grew to elaborate affairs with richly robed figurines placed in intricate landscape settings. [15] Charles III, King of the Two Sicilies, collected such elaborate scenes, and his enthusiasm encouraged others to do the same. [11]

The scene's popularity inspired much imitation throughout Christian countries, and in the early modern period sculpted cribs, often exported from Italy, were set up in many Christian churches and homes. [17] These elaborate scenes reached their artistic apogee in the Papal State, in Emilia, in the Kingdom of Naples and in Genoa. By the end of the 19th century nativity scenes became widely popular in many Christian denominations, and many versions in various sizes and made of various materials, such as terracotta, paper, wood, wax, and ivory, were marketed, often with a backdrop setting of a stable. [1]

Different traditions of nativity scenes emerged in different countries. Hand-painted santons are popular in Provence. In southern Germany, Austria and Trentino-Alto Adige, the wooden figurines are handcut. Colorful szopka are typical in Poland.

A tradition in England involved baking a mince pie in the shape of a manger which would hold the Christ child until dinnertime, when the pie was eaten. When the Puritans banned Christmas celebrations in the 17th century, they also passed specific legislation to outlaw such pies, calling them "idolaterie in crust". [11]

Distinctive nativity scenes and traditions have been created around the world and are displayed during the Christmas season in churches, homes, shopping malls, and other venues, and occasionally on public lands and in public buildings. The Vatican has displayed a scene in St. Peter's Square near its Christmas tree since 1982 and the Pope has for many years blessed the mangers of children assembled in St. Peter's Square for a special ceremony. [18] [ citation needed ] In the United States, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City annually displays a Neapolitan Baroque nativity scene before a 20 feet (6.1 m) blue spruce. [19]

Nativity scenes have not escaped controversy. A life-sized scene in the United Kingdom featuring waxwork celebrities provoked outrage in 2004, [20] and, in Spain, a city council forbade the exhibition of a traditional toilet humor character [21] in a public nativity scene. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) claimed in 2014 that animals in living displays lacked proper care and suffered abuse. [22] In the United States, nativity scenes on public lands and in public buildings have provoked court challenges, and the prankish theft of ceramic or plastic nativity figurines from outdoor displays has become commonplace. [23]

Static nativity scenes Edit

Static nativity scenes may be erected indoors or outdoors during the Christmas season, and are composed of figurines depicting the infant Jesus resting in a manger, Mary, and Joseph. Other figures in the scene may include angels, shepherds, and various animals. The figures may be made of any material, [8] and arranged in a stable or grotto. The Magi may also appear, and are sometimes not placed in the scene until the week following Christmas to account for their travel time to Bethlehem. [24] While most home nativity scenes are packed away at Christmas or shortly thereafter, nativity scenes in churches usually remain on display until the feast of the Baptism of the Lord. [8]

The nativity scene may not accurately reflect gospel events. With no basis in the gospels, for example, the shepherds, the Magi, and the ox and ass may be displayed together at the manger. The art form can be traced back to eighteenth-century Naples, Italy. Neapolitan nativity scenes do not represent Palestine at the time of Jesus but the life of the Naples of 1700, during the Bourbon period. Families competed with each other to produce the most elegant and elaborate scenes and so, next to the Child Jesus, to the Holy Family and the shepherds, were placed ladies and gentlemen of the nobility, representatives of the bourgeoisie of the time, vendors with their banks and miniatures of cheese, bread, sheep, pigs, ducks or geese, and typical figures of the time like gypsy predicting the future, people playing cards, housewives doing shopping, dogs, cats and chickens. [25]

Regional variants on the standard nativity scene are many. The putz of Pennsylvania Dutch Americans evolved into elaborate decorative Christmas villages in the twentieth century. In Colombia, the pesebre may feature a town and its surrounding countryside with shepherds and animals. Mary and Joseph are often depicted as rural Boyacá people with Mary clad in a countrywoman's shawl and fedora hat, and Joseph garbed in a poncho. The infant Jesus is depicted as European with Italianate features. Visitors bringing gifts to the Christ child are depicted as Colombian natives. [26] After World War I, large, lighted manger scenes in churches and public buildings grew in popularity, and, by the 1950s, many companies were selling lawn ornaments of non-fading, long-lasting, weather resistant materials telling the nativity story. [27]


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Away in a manger

The Gospel of Luke says Jesus was placed in a manger because there was no room at the inn. Tradition has put that manger in a stable. Says the carol:

“Once in royal David’s city
Stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her Baby
In a manger for His bed.”

But there is no evidence Jesus was born in a stable. It is more likely he was born in a house. Biblical scholars say Luke used the Greek word “kataluma,” which has been translated as inn, but more correctly means “guest room.” While the room was not available, scholars believe Mary would have been given a room on a lower floor — one in which animals as well as family members would have lived, since that was a common practice at the time.

In the bleak midwinter

“Snow had fallen, snow on snow,” says the carol based on a poem by the English writer Christina Rossetti. Except, it probably wasn’t winter. Archbishop Williams has said it is “unlikely” there was any snow. One of the reasons biblical scholars dismiss the idea of Jesus being born in winter is because the shepherds were out watching their flocks by night — which they wouldn’t do in a bleak midwinter. The practice of agrarian societies like first-century Judea would be to keep their flocks in the open fields from April to October. Plus, Mary was travelling to Bethlehem because the Romans had ordered a census taken and officials were unlikely to have done that in winter when travel would have been more difficult.


*Symbolism of the Nativity Scene Animals

I have a habit when wanting to understand the symbolism of an animal, I go straight to my book, Animal-Speak. As I picked up my book I felt a pull to the computer. I was drawn to Wikipedia searching “nativity scene.”

I found that “Saint Francis of Assisi (known as the patron saint of animals) is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223. It was a living nativity.

I looked further down the page and found “Animals in nativity scenes.” With no basis in the canonical narratives of the birth of Jesus, an ox and ass are usually part of the nativity scene. The tradition may have arised from an extracanonical text, the Pseudo-Matthew gospel of the 8th century: ”And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, Mary went out of the cave, and, entering a stable, placed the child in a manger, and an ox and an ass adored him.” Then was fulfilled that which was said by the prophet Isaiah, “The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib. Therefore, the animals, the ox and the ass, with him in their midst incessantly adored him.” Then was fulfilled that which was said by Habakkuk the prophet, saying, “Between two animals you are made manifest.” In a 1415, Corpus Christi celebration, the Ordo paginarum notes that Jesus was lying between an ox and an ass.”

Considerable symbolism is attached to the ox and the ass. The ox traditionally represents patience, the nation of Israel, and Old Testament sacrificial worship. The ass represents humility, readiness to serve, and the Gentiles.

It is mentioned that other animals were added later to nativity scenes. A few are sheep, camels, cows, and elephants. Finding the ox and the ass were the original nativity scene animals, I researched both in my Animal-Speak book by Ted Andrews.

I found the ass represents wisdom and humility. The last paragraph gave summary: “The ass is the promise of awakening wisdom and the approach of new opportunities of even greater work. Don’t be stubborn and refuse to move with the flow. Don’t hold on only to what you have done to this point. Remember that it is not the goal but the path to that goal. Do not become content and complacent, for the ass promises even higher wisdom and greater opportunities.” These words summarize what many of the animals tell their people in my communications.

Unfortunately I could not find information about the Ox.

Shortly after sending my information on nativity scene animals I received this information from an e-newsletter subscribers.

I found your information on the Nativity animals intriguing and though you might like to know that in a fairly popular book by Paul Foster Case called, simply, The Tarot. Case goes into some detail about the ox, which is associated with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, Aleph (or ALP, in translation to our Roman alphabet), “meaning Bull or Ox.” Case also associates that letter with the Tarot Fool, the Zero card in Tarot. In one key quote he notes that the symbol of the ox in association with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet goes back to the Taurean Age, “when the bull was the god-symbol dominant in the leading religions of the world. Apis in Egypt, Mithra among the Persians, Dionysos among the Greeks, all had the bull or ox as a symbol.” So the ox at Jesus’ nativity would fit right into that ancient line of special souls or saviors.

Thanks for your e-newsletter.

At the moment I thought I was finished with this newsletter, I heard in my mind, “If you are called an ass, respond to them – ‘And proud of it!” I then felt a serious wave come over me, and heard: “And tell them the story of the nativity scene.”

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Pope sets record straight on nativity animals myth

As Christians around the world start thinking about setting up nativity scenes for Christmas, the pope has pointed out that the ox and the donkey – regular fixtures around the manger – are latter-day inventions nowhere to be seen in the gospels.

Benedict puts the record straight in his third book on the life of Christ, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, which was released on Tuesday and looks destined for the bestseller lists with an initial print run of one million.

Having dealt with Christ's adult life and death in his first two books, the pope tackles the birth of the son of God and puts paid to some myths surrounding the newly born Jesus's spell in a stable with Mary and Joseph.

"In the gospels there is no mention of animals," the pope states. He says references to the ox and the donkey in other parts of the Bible may have inspired Christians to include them in their nativity scenes.

The Vatican itself has included animals in the nativity scenes it sets up each year in St Peter's Square, and Benedict concedes that the tradition is here to stay. "No nativity scene will give up its ox and donkey," he says.

Showing his scholarly approach to the Bible, Benedict also analyses the moment angels descended to tell shepherds the son of God was lying in a manger nearby. In a blow to fans of the carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Benedict writes: "According to the evangelist, the angels 'said' this. But Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song, in which all the glory of the great joy that they proclaim becomes tangibly present."

One aspect of the nativity story that Benedict states is absolutely true is the virgin birth of Jesus. Catholics, he argues, should see this, as well as Jesus's resurrection as "cornerstones of faith".

"If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God," he writes. "But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ he has ushered in a new creation."


The First Nativity Scene Was Created in 1223

Related Content

At some point in childhood, many kids don a blue shawl or fake beard and act out the nativity scene in front of doting parents and grandparents. Whether performed by children, set up as little figurines in a home or installed as a life-size tableau in front of a church, these scenes are a staple of the Christmas holidays. But when did this tradition begin?

Slate explores the history of the nativity scene:

Blame St. Francis of Assisi, who is credited with staging the first nativity scene in 1223. The only historical account we have of Francis’ nativity scene comes from The Life of St. Francis of Assisi by St. Bonaventure, a Franciscan monk who was born five years before Francis’ death.

According to Bonaventure’s biography, St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” (Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t say “Jesus.”) Bonaventure also claims that the hay used by Francis miraculously acquired the power to cure local cattle diseases and pestilences.

The nativity scene’s popularity took off from there. Within a couple of centuries, nativity scenes had spread throughout Europe. We don’t know if people actually played Mary and Joseph during Francis’ time, or whether they just imagined those figures’ presence. We do know that later scenes began incorporating dioramas and life actors, and the cast of characters gradually expanded beyond Mary, Joseph and sweet baby Jesus, to sometimes include an entire village.

Nativity buffs will know, however, that the familiar cast of characters relied upon today—the three wise men and the shepherds—is not biblically accurate. Of the New Testament’s four gospels, only Matthew and Luke describe Jesus’ birth. Matthew mentions wise men, while Luke comments on shepherds. But nowhere in the Bible do shepherds and wise men appear together. What’s worse, no one mentions donkeys, oxen, cattle or other farmyard friends in conjunction with Jesus’ birth. But what would a nativity scene be without those staples? Luckily for all the kids cast as King #2 or random shepherd, some artistic interpretation is permitted.

Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here


Christian Deceptions: Case Study: The Nativity Story

I count religion but a childish toy,
And hold there is no sin but ignorance.

Biblical inconsistencies are smoothed out and covered up so well by theologians that many Christians believe that the Bible tells a reliable and consistent story. Take for example the nativity story that is told each Christmas with the aid of selected gospel passages. Many Christians believe that the four canonical gospels contain consistent versions of the story of Jesus" birth, as re-enacted by millions of school children each year. A summary of it is as follows:

The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and Joseph with the news that Mary, a virgin, is pregnant and will give birth to Jesus. Before the birth Joseph and Mary travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Joseph's home town, for a census and to be taxed. When they get to Bethlehem they can find no room at the inn and are obliged to stay in a stable. There, on 25 th December in AD 0, accompanied by an ox and an ass, Mary gives birth to Jesus. Lacking suitable facilities the new parents use the animals" manger (feeding trough) as a crib for their new-born child. A host of angels appears to shepherds watching over their flocks in fields nearby and directs them to the site of the birth. Meanwhile, a star appears in the sky. This star leads three kings, Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar to the site. Mounted on camels they follow the star, taking with them three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. On the way the three kings let Herod the Great, King of Judea, know the purpose of their journey. Now aware that a King of Israel has been born, Herod orders the murder of all male children under the age of two. Having been warned of this by the angel Gabriel, Joseph and Mary escape to Egypt with their baby, until it is safe to return to Nazareth.

Familiar though this story is, it appears nowhere in the Bible. It is a conflation. Only two of the four canonical gospels give an account of the nativity at all. The two narratives give different and often contradictory accounts of the circumstances of Jesus" birth. Many of the subsidiary details are not mentioned in the gospels at all, nor anywhere else in the New Testament. Taking a few details one by one illustrates these points:

Gabriel According to Matthew the news of Mary's pregnancy was conveyed to Joseph in a dream (Matthew 1:20). According to Luke the angel Gabriel appeared not to Joseph but to Mary and not in a dream, but in person (Luke 1:26-38).

Mary's Virginity Both the Matthew and Luke gospels agree about this but, as we have seen (How Mary keeps her Virginity), the Virgin Birth seems to have been introduced as the result of an unsuccessful attempt to match the nativity story with an Old Testament prophecy.

Bethlehem Both authors place the birth in Bethlehem. However, according to Luke, the family originally lived in Nazareth and went to Bethlehem for a census (Luke 2:4-7), whereas according to Matthew the family settled in Nazareth only after their return from Egypt (this is evident from Matthew 2:23).

The Census As we have seen (pages 44 ff), the story of the census is not credible. Apart from contradicting known facts it gives a date for the birth of Jesus that is incompatible with the dates of the reign of Herod the Great.

The Time of Year The date is not mentioned in the Bible. There is no reason to suppose that the birth took place in December. Indeed the fact that sheep were in the fields at the time makes it unlikely. As most Christian scholars now acknowledge the date was selected simply to coincide with the popular festivities that marked the winter solstice. The year of birth is not known either. The year was calculated in the sixth century by a monk, Dionysius Exiguus, who fixed AD 1 as 754 AUC (Anno Urbis Conditae = years after the founding of the city of Rome). It was subsequently realised that Herod the Great had died four years earlier than this, so a recalculation was made and the purported year of birth moved back to 750 AUC, or 4 BC. (There is no year AD 0 or 0 BC: the year preceding AD 1 was 1 BC.)

Kings Neither Matthew nor Luke mentions kings visiting the new-born child. No one does. Matthew mentions an unspecified number of wise men or magi, by which he probably meant Zoroastrian priests. Luke mentions neither kings nor magi. Tertullian was the first to suggest that these magi were kings. The idea seems to have come from unrelated passages in the Old Testament:

Because of thy temple at Jerusalem shall kings bring presents unto thee. Psalm 68:29

The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him Psalm 72:10-11

The numbers of wise men, or kings, purported to have visited Jesus has varied over time. In early Christian art there were two, four or six. According to Eastern traditions there were 12. Other sources say "many". The number three seems to have chosen because the Matthew author mentions three gifts. The names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar occur nowhere in the Bible , and different Churches give the magi/kings different names: for example according to the Syrian Church they were called Larvandad, Hormisdas and Gushnasaph.

Camels The camels come from another unrelated Old Testament passage (Isaiah 60:3-6):

And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising. The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense and they shall shew forth the praises of the L ord.

Shepherds Luke has an unspecified number of shepherds coming to see the baby. Matthew does not mention them at all.

The Star According to Matthew the magi, having seen a star in the East, went to Jerusalem, which was the wrong place to go. Only after Herod had directed them to Bethlehem did the star reappear to lead them to the right place (Matthew 2:1-9). Stars were common portents in the ancient world, and the births and deaths of kings were frequently marked by such celestial events. Nevertheless, the author of Luke does not mention the star at all.

It is clear that the star story was continuously being exaggerated and embellished over time. For example, the star was soon being described as being miraculously brilliant*, and according to Ignatius of Antioch., all the rest of the stars along with the Sun and Moon gathered around this new star, which nevertheless outshone them all*.

The Inn In the original Greek none of the gospels mentions an inn. The Matthew author refers to mother and child in a house (Matthew 2:11). The Luke author uses the word katalemna meaning a temporary shelter and this was badly translated into English as inn (Luke 2:7). Elsewhere in the Bible katalemna was translated by the word tabernacle (as in 2 Samuel 7:6 for example).

The Manger No manger is mentioned by the Matthew author. The word used in the original Greek by the Luke author is thaten, a word that has a range of meanings, including a baby's crib and an animal's feeding trough. Obviously the meaning here is baby's crib, not manger.

The Stable Neither Matthew nor Luke mentions a stable. The idea that one is involved apparently stems from the erroneous translation of thaten as manger. Other sources, such as the non-canonical Gospel of James, locate the birth in a cave. So do many of the Church Fathers*. The Koran (19:17-22), possibly repeating another ancient tradition, locates the birth by a palm tree in a far off place.

The Nativy of Jesus in a cave - before the animals were introduced

The Ox and Ass Neither Mark nor Luke mentions these animals. Their inclusion in the story is apparently attributable to later Christian scholars who picked up the idea from an unrelated Old Testament passage.

The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib Isaiah 1:3

Significantly in the Septuagint the word corresponding to crib is thaten, the same word translated as manger in the Luke author's nativity story. The ox and ass in the Christmas story first make their appearance in an apocryphal gospel (pseudo-Matthew) probably dating from the eighth century. St Francis of Assisi apparently set up the first model Christmas crib, with accompanying ox and ass, in the thirteenth century.

Herod's Massacre of the Innocents The author of Matthew mentions this, but the author of Luke does not. One might have supposed that such a draconian measure would have been recorded elsewhere, as were less significant historical events. The mass murder of the infants has no historical corroboration, and is probably no more than an imaginative way of bringing both Bethlehem and Nazareth into the story. Indeed this massacre cannot have taken place as described, otherwise Jesus" second cousin and contemporary, John the Baptist, would have been killed, yet John survived to reappear later in the story. Once again it looks as though a story has been retrospectively added to the gospel, without thinking through all the consequences.

This sort of story was far from unknown in the ancient world. In the usual myth a king tries to kill a baby who, according to a prophecy, is destined to occupy his own throne. The king fails, though he does not know it, and years later he is supplanted by the child, now an adult, in accordance with prophecy. It is probably best known with some embellishments as the Greek story of Oedipus, but the same basic tale was also familiar in the Middle East. An earlier King of Media (where the magi came from) had ordered the murder of his own grandchild, because of a prophecy that the infant would grow up to overthrow him*. Like the infant Jesus, this child also escaped death to fulfil his destiny.

Matthew could not quote a suitable prophecy about a baby surviving an attempt to kill him, later to become king, because none exists in the Old Testament. Instead, Matthew cited a passage that he must have thought could be stretched to cover a massacre of children:

Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremy the Prophet, saying, In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.
Matthew 2:17-18, referring to Jeremiah 31:15

As is the case in most of the prophecies cited by Matthew, the connection is tenuous and unconvincing. Wrong people, wrong place, wrong tense, and not a single child death. Matthew neglects to mention that, in the next verse of Jeremiah, God says that these children will return from an enemy country.

The Flight to Egypt Luke does not mention the flight into Egypt at all. Matthew does, apparently, as we have already seen (page 175), so that he can cite another prophecy.

No independent historical records support either Matthew or Luke's story where they might be expected to: not the need to migrate for a census, nor the appearance of a new star, nor the massacre of the children. What seems to have happened is that both authors have improvised. Matthew has invented a story to fit Old Testament prophecies. Throughout the Matthew gospel references are made to current events fulfilling scriptural prophecies. These references are clearly intended to lend credibility to the stories and to impress readers. The prophecies, like those that we looked at earlier, are generally taken out of context, and in most cases they are not really prophecies at all in the sense that we now understand the term.

Luke has tried to give his story historical background. He seems to have heard, possibly from reports of the Matthew gospel, that Mary was a virgin, that her husband was called Joseph, and that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, though it was widely known that he came from Nazareth. Apart from that there is no agreement at all. The two stories contradict each other on matters such as Joseph's ancestry, whether or not he came from Nazareth or went there only after Jesus" birth, and the appearances of Gabriel. They disagree about the year, the flight into Egypt, the appearance of the star, the shepherds and the magi.

Neither of these authors mentions three kings (or kings at all, or three of anyone for that matter), nor camels, nor a stable, nor oxen or asses, nor the time of year. As a final indictment, it also seems that the stories were continuously being tampered with for generations. Surviving manuscripts show a range of alterations of varying subtlety and intention. No Father of the Church cites the birth stories exactly as we now know them in the gospels until Irenaeus of Lyons in the last quarter of the second century.

According to an ancient tradition (acknowledged in the Jerusalem Bible ), the original version of the Matthew gospel was written "in the Hebrew tongue". This version is likely to have been the gospel used by the Ebionites. One of the interesting things known about this Ebionite gospel was that it was shorter than the Greek version. One reason for this was that the opening verses about Jesus" miraculous birth were absent. If this Ebionite gospel was indeed the original version of Matthew, then the nativity story must be a later Greek addition, which is exactly what many scholars independently suspect from other evidence. It is also significant that we know of early versions of the Luke gospel that also lacked the nativity story*.

Even the most conservative Christian scholars now regard the stories of Jesus" miraculous birth as being historically unreliable*.


The nativity scene usually stays set up in homes until the end of Christmas. In former times, this was on 2nd February the feast of Candlemas, but in the meantime the Sunday after Epiphany or even Epiphany itself has established itself as the end of Christmas.

The manger should be placed front and center of stable, as this is where baby Jesus is to rest. While it is not uncommon to place Jesus in the manger right away, some traditions do state that Jesus should not be placed until late on Christmas Eve, because he wasn’t born until then.


Do You See What I See? Imagery in Nativity Scenes

The visual focus of a Nativity scene is the Christ Child, with Mary, Joseph, animals, shepherds, and wise men all playing secondary roles. The most detailed biblical account of the birth of Jesus is found in Luke (2:7), which records that Mary “gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Early Christian art depicts the baby Jesus in these swaddling cloths—usually a square piece of cloth wrapped snugly with bandages. In medieval and Renaissance Nativities, however, the baby is often shown wearing little or no clothing, and radiating a supernatural light. This is consistent with the mystical vision of St. Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden (1303-73), who claimed to have seen “the glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing” (Revelationes Coelestes:Book 7, Chapter 21). Bridget’s “Celestial Revelations,” which were translated from Swedish into Latin and spread widely throughout Europe, contain a detailed account of her vision of the Nativity. Most modern Nativities either depict the Christ Child wrapped in swaddling cloths or almost naked with a loincloth (see photo, below).

A manger is a trough for feeding animals. In biblical times mangers were essentially boxes, either carved from stone or built from masonry. However, modern three-dimensional Nativities exhibit a wide variety of manger styles, depending on regional customs or the preference of the artisan. The manger is often made of wood, filled with hay, and placed on the ground in a stable. However, in Laos the manger is a woven reed basket suspended from the rafters of a house so that the cradle may rock, a common feature of family homes there (see photo, below).

Neapolitan presepio (Nativity scene) made by Giuseppe Ferrigno. Naples, Italy, 2007. This presepio is the work of the Giuseppe and Marco Ferrigno workshop, a fourth-generation family business. The faces, hands, lower legs, and feet of the figures are made of terracotta, which is then painted. Other parts of the body are constructed with wire wrapped in cloth so that each figure can be posed. The clothing for each character is handmade in the 18th-century style, draped in San Leucio silks. The Ferrigno family began making presepi in Naples in 1836. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of William L. Starck and Adolph P. Falcón.

Hmong Nativity, 2009. This Nativity, made of wood, bamboo, and grass, is a replica of a traditional Hmong home in Laos, a country in Southeast Asia. Mary and Joseph attend the Christ Child who, in traditional Hmong fashion, hangs in a woven straw basket suspended from the rafters. The Hmong, an ethnic group in the mountainous regions of several different countries, are a minority group within Laos. They were introduced to Christianity by missionaries beginning in the 19th century. The figures for this Nativity are carved from a local soft wood, but not during the rainy season, when the wood is too wet. Collection of Glencairn Museum.

Stable or Cave

“The Friendly Beasts,” a traditional Christmas carol, tells us that Jesus “was humbly born in a stable rude, and the friendly beasts around him stood.” While the New Testament never mentions a stable, Luke (2:7) recounts that Mary “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” The earliest Christians located the manger in a cave. The Church of the Nativity, which dates to the 4th century, was built over the cave in Bethlehem where the birth was believed to have taken place. The Infancy Gospel of James (chapter 18) also places the Nativity in a cave, but the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew combines the two locations, explaining that on the third day after the birth “Mary went out of the cave and, entering a stable, placed the child in the manger” (chapter 14).

In early Christian art the cave was the setting for Nativity scenes, and this continues to be the case with Nativities made by the Eastern Christian Church. Eastern icons place the newborn Christ at the mouth of a deep cave, in order to symbolize His descent into the very depth of the human condition. A free-standing stable has always been customary in western European art, although makers of Nativities in Italy prefer the grotto (an artificial construction or excavation made to resemble a cave). In paintings of the Italian Renaissance, ruined Roman architecture sometimes appears in the background of a Nativity scene to indicate that, due to the birth of Christ, the old pagan culture is now falling away. The tradition of including classical ruins in the scene continues to this day with some modern Nativities (see photo, below).

"Christmas Manger Set," USA, early 1940s. This cardboard tabletop Nativity was published by Concordia Publishing House from illustrations first produced by artist George Hinke. A base is provided with special tabs to hold the 17 lithographed figures upright each tab is carefully labeled so that even a child can assemble it. Hinke was born in 1883 in Berlin, Germany, where he trained as a painter. He immigrated to the United States in 1923. Hinke specialized in religious subjects and nostalgic scenes of small-town American life. He is best remembered for his illustrations of children’s books such as Joseph’s Story, which tells the Nativity story from Joseph’s point of view, and Jolly Old Santa Claus. Collection of Glencairn Museum.

This contemporary Nativity scene, made in China, reflects an old artistic tradition. In paintings of the Italian Renaissance, ruined Roman architecture was sometimes used in the background of a Nativity scene to symbolize the fall of the old order (paganism). Within the crumbling temple is the Holy Family, representing the birth of the new order (Christianity). Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Rita Bonaccorsi Bocher.

Caltagirone, a town on the island of Sicily, has long been famous as a center for the production of ceramics. Nativity figures have been made here since the Middle Ages, and today many of the workshops continue this tradition. This set was purchased in Caltagirone around the year 2000. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Rita Bonaccorsi Bocher.

The Christmas carol “Good Christian Men Rejoice” proclaims that “ox and ass before Him bow, and He is in the manger now Christ is born today.” The humble ox and ass, which are never mentioned in the New Testament, are almost always present in Nativity scenes, often with their heads bowed over the manger (see photo, below). These animals appear in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (14:1), which interprets them as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. According to Pseudo-Matthew, after entering the stable Mary placed the Child in a manger and “an ox and an ass adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, ‘The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib’” (Isaiah 1:3). The passage in Isaiah continues, “but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Early Christian theologians found allegorical meaning in the presence of the ox and ass at the Nativity, with the ox representing Israel and the ass the Gentiles. The divine Christ Child came to save people of all nations.

The ox and ass are included in Nativity art from the very beginning, even when Mary and Joseph are absent. This 4th century sarcophagus lid in Milan shows the two animals flanking the manger of the Christ Child, without Mary or any other human attendants. From this period on the ox and ass were prominently featured, and they continue to be included in many modern Nativity scenes.

The biblical accounts in Matthew and Luke make it clear that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was miraculously born of a virgin, and “the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:27). Luke records that Mary was present with the babe during the visit from the shepherds (2:16), and Matthew says that when the wise men came they “saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him” (2:11). The Bible provides very little information about Mary’s background, but she figures prominently in the New Testament Apocrypha.

Mary is sometimes absent from the earliest artistic representations of the Nativity, but by the end of the 5th century she is always found at the manger. For the first thousand years of Christian art she was usually depicted lying down, in a posture apparently intended to convey exhaustion after giving birth. This begins to change in western European art during the 14th century, and from the late 15th century onward Mary is normally shown kneeling, with both hands together, praying to her divine Child. Joseph and the shepherds often kneel with her (see photo, below).

Mary’s kneeling pose, with her hands folded in prayer, reflects the influence of certain Franciscan writings and also the mystical visions of St. Bridget (for St. Bridget see above, "Christ Child and Manger," and below, "Joseph"). According to Bridget’s vision, before the birth “the Virgin knelt with great reverence, putting herself at prayer.” After the birth, “having bowed her head and joined her hands, with great dignity and reverence she adored the boy and said to Him: ‘Welcome, my God, my Lord, and my Son!’” (Revelationes Coelestes: Book 7, Chapter 21)

With three-dimensional Nativities the kneeling pose for Mary predominates, her hands being placed together in prayer or crossed on her chest. Only occasionally is she shown reclining, as in this polymer clay Nativity made in 2007 by Judy Gibson King (see photo, below). Here Mary is shown asleep with her head in Joseph’s lap, while he holds the baby Jesus. The color of Mary’s clothing is frequently light blue however, red, white and other colors are not unusual.

This olivewood Nativity was made by Palestinian Christians on the West Bank of the Jordan River. According to the New Testament the birthplace of Jesus was Bethlehem, a city on the central West Bank about six miles south of Jerusalem. Olivewood carving has provided local residents with a livelihood since the 16th and 17th centuries, when Franciscans taught the craft to local residents, who then began making small religious souvenirs for pilgrims. The wood comes from branches left over from the pruning of olive trees. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Ten Thousand Villages.

Nativity scene by Judy Gibson King, USA, 2007. Handmade from polymer clay, wood, and natural materials. King began making religious figures out of polymer clay as a form of private meditation and prayer, but her work has since become a full-time occupation. This Nativity has a contemporary feel Mary lies asleep with her head in Joseph’s lap while he holds the baby Jesus. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Alan and Mary Liz Pomeroy.

Papier-mache Nativity, Italy, 1950s and 60s. This Nativity set was was owned by Dr. Rita Bonaccorsi Bocher and her husband Herman “Bud” Bocher. Dr. Bocher is one of the founders of The Friends of the Creche, the only national Nativities organization in the USA. She has also been the publisher and editor of The Crèche Herald since its first appearance in 1997. In 2008, at the 18th International Crèche Congress in Augsburg, Germany, Dr. Bocher was awarded the Medal of the International Federation of Crèche Societies for her efforts in promoting the Nativity tradition. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Rita Bonaccorsi Bocher.

In the biblical account Joseph, the husband of Mary, is described as being a descendant of King David (Luke 2:4) and“a just man” (Matthew 1:19). The Bible does not reveal Joseph’s age, but in art he has traditionally been depicted as an old man, sometimes bald, in keeping with his portrayal in a number of non-biblical texts. In the Infancy Gospel of James, for example, Joseph says, “I have sons and am old” (9:2). Some modern Nativities retain this tradition by giving Joseph grey hair (see photo, below).

Joseph is frequently shown holding a staff, which sometimes terminates in a flower. This attribute has its origins in an apocryphal story of how Joseph was selected to be Mary’s husband. Several of the apocryphal Gospels, and also Jacobus de Voragine’s 13th-century book, The Golden Legend, recount that Mary lived in the Temple in Jerusalem for most of her childhood. When she reached marriageable age the high priest asked all the eligible suitors to come to the Temple with their staffs in hand. According to the Infancy Gospel of James, Joseph was chosen from among the suitors when a dove miraculously came forth from the top of his staff. In a later version of the story found in The Golden Legend (chapter 5) a dove lands on the staff, which also blossoms. For this reason, in later times the lily became the emblem of St. Joseph. Joseph is shown with a lily in this ceramic Nativity made by Josefina Aguilar in Oaxaca, Mexico (see photo, below).

Beginning in the 15th century, paintings sometimes show Joseph holding a candle. This attribute refers to a passage from a mystical vision of St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-73):

“With her there was a very dignified old man [i.e. Joseph] and with them they had both an ox and an ass. When they had entered the cave, and after the ox and the ass had been tied to the manger, the old man went outside and brought to the Virgin a lighted candle and fixed it in the wall and went outside in order not to be personally present at the birth” (Revelationes Coelestes: Book 7, Chapter 21).

St. Bridget goes on to say that, once the Christ Child was born, the cave where the birth took place was filled with an ineffable divine light that completely outshone the earthly light of Joseph’s candle. In later centuries artists replaced Joseph’s candle with a lantern—not necessarily in reference to St. Bridget’s vision, but simply to light the space in the stable or grotto. Many modern Nativities continue to give Joseph a lantern, such as this hand painted wooden example from Russia (see photo, below).

Painted ceramic Nativity by Josefina Aguilar, Octolán de Morelas, Oaxaca, Mexico, circa 1990. Josefina is perhaps the best known of the four Aguilar sisters, Mexican folk artists who live in Octolán, a village near the city of Oaxaca. Josefina was the first of her sisters to achieve international recognition when Nelson Rockefeller began collecting her pieces in the 1970s. Today the folk art of the Aguilar sisters can be seen in museums and private collections around the world. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Rita Bonaccorsi Bocher and Frank and Mary Bonaccorsi Herzel.

This handcarved and painted Nativity in five separate pieces was made in the town of Sergiev Posad by an artist who signed her name only as “Olya.” Sergiev Posad is the site of The Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius, the most important monastery in Russia and the center of the Russian Orthodox Church. The town of Sergiev Posad has been producing wood carvings and toys for centuries, and is widely known as the birthplace of the Russian nesting doll (matrioshka). Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Alan and Mary Liz Pomeroy

The Gospel of Matthew makes no mention of shepherds, but Luke’s description of their role in the Nativity runs to twelve verses (2:8-20). Art historians generally divide this portion of the Christmas story into two scenes—the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Shepherds—with overlap sometimes occurring between the two. Nativities often portray the shepherds as reacting to the news of the Annunciation, or in the act of Adoration, or both.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds occurred at night while they were in the field watching their flocks. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and “the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear” (Luke 2:9). However, the angel gave them the good news that Christ the Savior was born, and revealed to them that in Bethlehem they would find “a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (2:12). Once the angel was finished speaking, many more angels (the “heavenly host”) appeared to the shepherds, saying, “Glory to God in the highest!” (2:14). This example of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, from a 15th-century Book of Hours at Glencairn Museum, shows two shepherds in the hills tending their flock, looking up to the sky with angels above (see photo, below). The artist has included a dog in the scene, an animal commonly found in Nativities accompanying the shepherds and sheep.

Paper Nativity by Maud and Miska Petersham, United States, 1933. The Petershams were a husband-and-wife illustration and writing team who produced many books for children. In 1931 they published a Nativity book, The Christ Child, with text taken from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NY: Doubleday). This pop-up paper crèche, produced in 1933, is adapted from illustrations in that book. In 1949, while living in Glencairn, Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn gave over 100 copies of The Christ Child as gifts to family and friends. The Pitcairns also commissioned two watercolor paintings by Maud Petersham that they used as Christmas cards in the 1960s. Collection of Glencairn Museum.

This illustration of the Annunciation to the Shepherds comes from a 15th-century Flemish Book of Hours in the collection of Glencairn Museum (07.MS.636). Books of Hours were prayer books for the laity. Glencairn’s book includes a number of other pictures from the Christmas story, including the Annunciation to Mary, the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Wise Men, the Presentation in the Temple, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight into Egypt.

The Gospel of Luke describes how, after the angel gave the good news to the shepherds, they decided to go to Bethlehem to see the Christ Child. They went “with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger” (2:16). The shepherds then left to spread the news, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (2:20). It was in connection with these passages from Luke that the Adoration of the Shepherds first appeared as an artistic theme during the Middle Ages. However, Luke does not specifically say that the shepherds adored the Christ Child. Nativity scenes with shepherds kneeling at the manger probably developed by analogy with the wise men, who presented gifts and “fell down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11). The Adoration of the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Wise Men are frequently combined into a single Nativity scene (see photo, below), although many Christians believe that the shepherds and wise men did not visit Jesus at the same time.

This Nativity set, which shows the shepherds and wise men in the act of adoration, was probably made in southern Germany around 1920. Figures like these were a cottage industry, made in small quantities in homes and sold by peddlers who traveled around Germany and neighboring countries. Chalkware sets were common in both middle class and lower middle class homes. Collection of Glencairn Museum.

In contrast to the wise men, who presented costly gifts of “gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11), the shepherds are portrayed in art as representatives of the poor. They are dressed simply, and sometimes present modest gifts to the Christ Child. Matthew does not say how many shepherds were present at the manger. When three shepherds are depicted, often one is young, one is middle aged, and one is old, representing the different stages of life. Their usual attributes are the shepherd’s crook and the flute bagpipes are also common, especially in Nativities from Italy.

In the New Testament the story of the wise men (also known as the “magi”) is found only in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12). According to Matthew, the wise men came “from the East” to Jerusalem asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him” (2:2). When the star appeared over the place where the Christ Child was, the wise men went “into the house” and “fell down and worshiped him.” They then offered Him gifts of “gold and frankincense and myrrh” (2:11). Matthew gives no further information about the identity of these travelers, who are the subject of the artistic theme known as the Adoration of the Wise Men. In art the wise men, like the shepherds, are often shown kneeling with their gifts. Modern Nativities may replace the gold, frankincense, and myrrh with gifts appropriate to the local culture of the artist. For example, this ceramic Nativity, made on the Jemez Pueblo by Native American artist Cheryl Fragua, shows the wise men offering painted pottery and a drum (see photo, below).

“Magi” is the English form of the original Greek word magoi, a plural noun. Matthew specifies no exact number of wise men, but early Christian art presents them as two, three, four, or six in number, with three being the most common. Eventually the number became fixed at three, perhaps because it was assumed that a different man brought each of the three gifts. The meaning of the term magoi in the context of Matthew’s narrative has been a topic of discussion since the early days of the Christian church. They have been variously described as “sages,” “diviners,” “astrologers,” or “priests.” In keeping with Matthew, in the earliest art they appear in vaguely eastern dress and headgear. As early as the third century, however, interpreters of the Bible began to identify the wise men as kings, in connection with a prophesy found in the Psalms: “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!” (Psalm 72:10). By the time of the Middle Ages the “three kings” were being depicted in art with crowns and elaborate garments (see photo, below). Many modern Nativities continue this tradition.

In England, the Venerable Bede (d. 735) wrote that the wise men represent the three parts of the world—Asia, Africa, and Europe—and that they signify the three sons of Noah, who fathered the races of these three continents (see Genesis chapter 10). In time this idea found expression in art, and by the late Middle Ages one of the kings was often being depicted as a black African. The kings are sometimes accompanied by retinues, which include animals from their presumed places of origin camels, horses, and elephants are the most common. As with the shepherds, the three kings are sometimes shown representing the different stages of life: young, middle aged, and old (see photo, below).

This Pueblo Indian Nativity (nacimiento) was made in 2011 by Cheryl Fragua of the Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, using clay and natural pigments. Most of the residents of the Pueblos have accepted Christianity as an addition to their own pre-Christian traditions. Today a number of Pueblo Indian artisans make Nativities regularly, along with other works such as the famous ceramic storyteller figures. Indian culture is rich with myths and stories, which are used to convey traditions and values. The storyteller and Nativity figures usually have closed eyes and an open mouth in order to “let the stories out.” Collection of Glencairn Museum.

This limestone relief with the Adoration of the Wise Men, in the collection of Glencairn Museum (09.SP.119), was made in 13th-century France. The first wise man, whose arm is broken off, is depicted kneeling and presenting a gift. All three men are represented as kings with crowns, in keeping with medieval tradition.

Santons from France made from fired clay, cloth, and other materials, 2008. The French Revolution played a role in establishing the tradition of santons or “little saints.” Before the churches in France were closed in 1794 it was customary for them to put on Nativity plays when the revolutionary authorities banned these plays individuals began to set up Nativities in their own homes. Santons come in a variety of sizes. These large figures of the three wise men were made by an artist signed “Marie,” from Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Alan and Mary Liz Pomeroy.


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