Nativity Art Through The Ages

Olivia Drage, December 14, 2018

In its visual art form, The Nativity scene has been a key subject of the Christian narrative since the 14th century. Regardless of faith, the representation of the holy child resting in a stable manger, flanked by his parents and adored by shepard’s, barn animals and wisemen alike, is utterly iconic.

With Christmas drawing closer, what a better time to reflect on representations of the famous festive scene throughout the ages. Despite changing artistic styles and mediums, the biblical narrative scene shown in such paintings hasn’t changed much at all. I have shown the continuation of the traditional canonical scene through the work of the following four artists:

1. Fra Angelico – Nativity – 1440 

Fra Angelico shows the Nativity in its simplest form. Produced in 15th century in ‘gothic’ style the painting shows the moment just after Christ’s birth. Surrounding the infant are Mary, Joseph and other religious figures, their significance denoted with glowing halos. Behind, we can see four angels, a donkey and a cow, guests who according to Christian literature were all present at the birth of baby Jesus. This representation of the Nativity, despite its simplistic composition, contains all the elements of the Nativity narrative we are familiar with today. 

2. Sandro Botticelli - Mystic Nativity  - 1501

Botticelli’s Nativity scene is far more complicated than Angelico’s. It shows the development that occurred between the 15th and 16th centuries. The birth is set within a detailed landscape and contains both humans and angels, who represent heaven and earth and celebrate the miraculous event. Although extremely complex in its content and far more advanced in its artistic ability, this scene is not so dissimilar to the first. The birth of Jesus within a rustic stable is still the central focus of the composition along with the holy figures familiar to the Christmas story.

3. Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre - Nativity  - Second half of the 18th century

Pierre’s painting is a much more realistic representation of the event. We are brought within the stable to the focal point of the scene. By the 18th century, there was an advancement in the depiction of anatomy and the ability to represent light. Pierre utilises this development to demonstrate the holiness and divinity of the illuminated Christ. Bordering this are angels, livestock and religious figures from the biblical narrative. Despite this artwork appearing very different to the previous two in style and form, the all-important inclusion of the iconic figures that we associate with a Nativity scene remain ever-present.

4. Salvador Dali - The Nativity - Christmas card produced in 1960

My final example is by Salvador Dali, who takes the gothic style to a whole new extreme in his 20th-century surrealist representation of The Nativity. The Holy Family are abstract and distorted. The birth of Jesus is depicted through the gender symbol of the circle and cross which represents his masculinity. Dali also includes an angel to the left and cow to the right (just like Pierre in the previous example). Although this work is unconventional and considerably different to Fra Angelico’s depiction, the elements of the traditional Nativity are still recognisable.

The Nativity in Modern Culture

It is fascinating to see the development of the depictions of the famous Christmas scene as we progress throughout time. It is wonderful how this traditional image still features so heavily in our culture and in our festive celebrations.

It is a special reminder that the festival of Christmas is soon to begin. Just like the emergence of the Christmas trees, candy canes and gifts, The Nativity remains a strong image in an increasingly agnostic world; safely retained within school plays, Christmas cards and advent calendars. 

Written by Olivia Drage - Recruitment Resourcer - Fine Art & Gallery Services at Alchemy Recruitment Ltd.

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