Before Christianity was recognized officially in 313 CE by the Roman Emperor Constantine I, Christian art was limited to painting on the plaster walls of catacombs. The early community largely was made up of the poor, but as the community grew in the 4th Century, people of means joined. Stone sarcophagi began to be carved for the catacombs. However, the quality of all of the arts had declined, and Early Christian art began at a very rudimentary level.
The “Nativity,” depicted on one side of Stilicone’s Sarcophagus (4th Century), is most unusual for the time because early Christian art consisted of Old Testament Resurrection stories such as Jonah and the Whale or Daniel in the Lion’s Den. The sarcophagus was found under the pulpit of the basilica of San Ambroggio in Milan. The basilica was consecrated by Saint Ambrose in 379 CE and completed in 386 CE.
Centered in the triangular composition on the sarcophagus is the swaddled Jesus in a crib. At His right, the ass lies down and looks at Jesus as does the ox to His left. They keep watch over the newborn baby. At the points of the triangle, doves eat fruit from baskets. Although the artist was not skilled, there is something innocent and charming in the sincere attempt to create a meaningful image.
A carved border of rosettes and swastikas can be seen along the bottom of the triangle. Representing an open flower, the rosette is a symbol found in Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hindu, Buddhist and other ancient cultures. The four-leaf rosette was a symbol used frequently in Christian art. The right-facing swastika also is found in all ancient cultures and it is a symbol of divinity, hope, and well-being. It represents the sun, but was carved or painted with straight lines to simplify the circle with rays of light that it represented. The image did not become associated with evil until the 1930’s, when it was adopted as the symbol of the German Nazi Party.
The artists who copied and painted Illuminated manuscripts were mostly monastic monks and nuns, only a few with training. Vellum (stretched calf skin) was used since paper was scarce until the 15th Century. Missals were texts containing all the necessary information to celebrate the mass throughout the year. They were commissioned by the wealthy. The text and images are referred to as illuminated, rather than illustrated, since they were intended to bring light to the word of God.
Initial letters of the first words in sections of the text also were decorated elaborately. The “Nativity” (English Missal) (1310-20) is painted inside the circular top of the letter P. Stretched out on the bed, Mary has just given birth to Jesus. She appears fatigued. Joseph, her aged husband, has a worried look on his face, and he reaches with his left hand to touch Mary.
Behind them in a manger, Jesus and is snuggled by the white ox and licked by the gray donkey. Both animals frequently are depicted near the Baby to keep Him warm. Their presence in a Nativity scene is a reference to the Old Testament verse of Isiah 1: 2-3: “The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s manger: Israel has not knowledge, my people have no understanding.”
On the crib, the artist has drawn the popular quatrefoil rosette design that is carved on all Gothic cathedrals. The color composition successfully balances the red of Mary’s cloak with the red used to form the circle of the P, the green used to create the bed clothes and the crib, and the blue of Joseph’s robe with the blue surrounding the P. The illuminator has created a tender and moving Nativity scene.
Gertgen tot Sint Jans (1465-1495) of the Netherlands was one of the first artists to attempt a night scene. His “Nativity at Night” (1490) is very small (13.3’’ x 9.9’’) and was made as a private devotional piece. Sint Jans’s painting was influenced by the writing of Saint Bridget of Sweden (1303-1373), whose mystical visions were extremely popular at the time. Saint Bridget’s words describe the painting: “The Virgin knelt down with great veneration in an attitude of prayer…she gave birth to her son, from whom radiated such an ineffable light and splendor…Then I heard also the singing of the angels, which was of miraculous sweetness and great beauty.” Joseph stands quietly behind Mary at the far right.
Sint Jans included the Annunciation to the shepherds at the upper left corner. The scene is lighted by two sources: the glow of the angel and the shepherd’s fire. Gathered with their flock, shepherds witness the appearance of the angel. At the lower right, one shepherd kneels and looks up to hear the message. The flock of sheep are gathered and peaceful, guarded by sheepdogs. Sint Jans’s “Nativity at Night” begins a tradition of night paintings, and he paints the Nativity at the time of day that is consistent with the Bible story.
Lorenzo Lotto (1480-1557) was a Venetian artist during High Renaissance. The “Nativity” (1523) (18’’x14’’) (National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC) depicts what is sometimes called “The Adoration of the Child.” Mary and Joseph kneel, and each in their own way looks upon the newborn Jesus with wonder and adoration. Lotto placed the three major figures in a triangular composition. Mary wears the traditional red dress with blue cloak. Joseph‘s white hair and beard indicate his advanced age, and a crutch is tucked under his arm. Jesus lies in a wicker crib. He is an active child; His hands reach up, His feet kick, and He smiles at Mary. Two sets of gold rays shine from His head, instead of the usual halo. The bag of grain and a small casket of wine in front of the crib, may be food for Mary and Joseph, but they also represent the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
The stable behind Mary and Joseph has a thatched roof and a ladder leading up to a loft. At the top of the ladder, two white doves perch quietly on a beam. They are messengers of peace, love, and hope. Flying above the thatched roof, three cherubs hold a large page of sheet music and serenade the Holy Family. In the distant landscape, a shepherd and a sheep can be seen. This image can be read in two ways: a reference to the shepherds who will come soon to see the Child, or to Jesus who was sent by God to die as a sacrificial lamb. This second reading is supported by the scene of the crucifixion on the dark wall at the left side. Artists often include sheafs of wheat and grapes, Jesus asleep on Mary’s lap, or other symbols foretelling what is to come. However, the focus of Lotto’s painting is clearly on the charming, active infant in the manger.
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown six years ago, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL and Chesapeake College’s Institute for Adult Learning. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.