With ox and ass: traditional paintings of the Nativity

Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c 1460-1488), Nativity at Night (c 1490), oil on oak, 34 x 25.3 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Happy Christmas! To celebrate today, I’ve selected some of my favourite Nativity scenes which follow the traditional formula of including the Holy Family with the company of an ox and an ass, or similar farm animals.

The ox and ass aren’t mentioned in any of the Gospel accounts of the Nativity, and don’t appear in literary sources until the eighth century. However, they do appear in visual art from around 400 CE, and in miniatures in manuscripts from the tenth century.

Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255–1319), The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel (1308-11), tempera on panel, 48 x 87 cm, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

It’s probably Duccio’s Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel from 1308-11 which forms the prototype for centuries of subsequent paintings, with its humble shed set into rock, the Holy Family, and the attendant animals (ox, ass, sheep) and humans (shepherds, angels). This was installed at the high altar in the Duomo (cathedral) in Siena, Italy, on 30 June 1311, and remained there for nearly two centuries, only being removed in 1506. Each panel has its own apposite Latin inscription, although those are now largely illegible.

Petrus Christus (1425–1476), The Nativity (c 1445-50), oil on wood, 130 × 97 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

The Renaissance then brought a succession of masterly religious paintings which aimed to be so realistic that they deceived the eye, including Petrus Christus’ The Nativity from about 1445-50. It still contains the essential elements, though: the infant Jesus is naked rather than swaddled, resting on the ground in front of the Virgin Mary. To the left are the ox and ass, and on the right is a balding and bearded Joseph with his walking stick.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The Nativity (c 1473-5), fresco transferred to canvas, 160 x 140 cm, Columbia Museum of Art, Columbia, SC. Wikimedia Commons.

By 1500, Sandro Botticelli had already painted several conventional nativity scenes. Two frescoes which have survived are quite typical: The Nativity (c 1473-5) (above) has been transferred to canvas and can now be seen in the Columbia Museum of Art, and that in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella (1476-7) (below) is one of the recommended sites in Florence, Italy.

Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), Nativity (1476-7), fresco, 200 x 300 cm, Basilica of Santa Maria Novella, Florence. Photo by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

These follow the convention: the infant Christ, required to be at the centre of course, with Joseph the carpenter on one side, and the Virgin Mary on the other. They are within a semi-derelict cattle-shed, with the ox and ass in the background, and there are attendant shepherds. Representatives of the angelic host are optional.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c 1460-1488), Nativity at Night (c 1490), oil on oak, 34 x 25.3 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

A now-forgotten literary influence on many nativity scenes was the vision of Saint Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden, in which the infant Jesus was a source of physical light. This led painters such as Geertgen tot Sint Jans to make nocturnes in which a mystical light created dramatic effects. His Nativity at Night, which is thought to be from about 1490, uses chiaroscuro with narrative sense too, resulting in great tenderness and reverence, thanks to its tonal transitions. I particularly love the heads of the two animals peering into the crib. Once popularised in nativity scenes, chiaroscuro was poised for more general use by masters such as Caravaggio.

We then leap forward four centuries to two modernised nativities, which turn out to be traditionally composed.

Maurice Denis (1870–1943), Nativity (1894), oil on canvas, 95 x 89 cm, Musée des Augustins de Toulouse, Toulouse, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Maurice Denis was one of several nineteenth century artists who transcribed events described in the Bible into modern settings. One of his most impressive is his thoroughly modern Nativity from 1894, in which the birth of Jesus takes place in a French town. Despite the modern buildings and dress, the ox and the ass are just behind the Holy Family, and a few sheep are lying down in the foreground.

Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale (1872–1945), The Nativity (date not known), watercolour, 24 × 17 cm, location not known. Wikimedia Commons.

The Pre-Raphaelite Eleanor Fortescue-Brickdale gave her undated watercolour of The Nativity a thoroughly contemporary look, apart from the Virgin Mary’s costume. I can’t see an ass here, but in compensation the artist provides a small herd of cows.

Once more, I wish you a very happy Christmas.