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Christian art motifs dominated the fine arts scene for centuries.
Biblical tales like the creation of man, the story of the prodigal son, Judith slaying Holofernes, the last supper, and others have inspired artists and their patrons to create stunning works that many of us recognize and love today.
No theme or story is more revered than the birth of Jesus. The tale of Mary and Joseph traveling to Bethlehem to safely deliver the Savior of humanity is as heartwarming as it is full of promise.
The nativity scene is one of the most famous religious subjects, second only to the Crucifixion. From the baby Jesus to the wise men, every aspect is instantly recognizable, no matter whether you're intimately familiar with the story or just know bits and pieces of it.
Every artist puts their spin on this biblical tale, but many elements stay the same throughout. This week, we'll look at these enduring symbols and what they mean in the nativity as we know it today.
After being turned away from the inn, the Holy Family settle into a farm animal stable. Here, the Virgin Mother gives birth, and the Savior is placed in a feeding trough or manger.
Although different scholars and theologians have placed Christ's birth in a cave, artists invariably took more creative license. They depicted the birth in everything from simple structures to crumbling castles and grottos for symbolic and dramatic effect.
In the Italian Renaissance, painters began depicting half-demolished stone structures as Jesus' birthplace. Symbolically, this stood to represent the Roman pagan regime crumbling at the birth of Christianity. It also offered artists a chance to show off their artistic skills and charge wealthy patrons more for their work, all the while adding a dramatic touch to their compositions.
This artistic device continues today, with some artists and Nativity makers going as far as to combine the concept of the traditional stable and the Roman ruins in one cohesive piece.
One thing remains true: this facet of the tale attests to Jesus' humble beginnings despite his destiny as the Savior of Mankind.
Besides the infant Jesus, the two most recognizable figures in any Nativity scene are, by far, the blessed mother and father.
Joseph is easily recognizable in any Nativity scene. Although the Gospels are mum on his age, he's usually depicted as a bearded gentleman and is sometimes painted or sculpted to look older than his wife.
To that effect, he's often shown carrying a staff or cane. Joseph would have been responsible for protecting his wife as they journeyed towards Egypt for their son's birth. He likely would have armed himself for the treacherous pilgrimage. Taking a logical leap, a stick, like the one in the painting below, would have acted not only as a weapon but also as a walking stick to support him as they traveled. Occasionally, artists embellished this staff with lilies, which were well-known symbols of his wife because of their perceived purity.
Three main elements easily identify the Virgin Mary.
In almost every Nativity, Mary is the figure nearest to the manger and the infant. She is usually kneeling, hands folded in prayer, or extended towards her newborn child. These two factors identify her as a central figure in the story and represent her as a caring and doting mother, ready to leap at her child's first cry.
Mary is often pictured wearing layered robes in shades of red and blue. Besides being a nice color combo, there's also a fascinating reason she's usually painted wearing vibrant robes!
Blue is a scarce color in the natural world. Before the invention of synthetic pigments, artists had to rely on procuring and processing organic materials, like lapis lazuli and azurite, for their paint. Although artists preferred it, lapis lazuli was incredibly difficult to grind by hand and often produced a dull grey-ish blue rather than the rich blue of the original stone.
Around the 12th century, a process that refined lapis with minimal impact on the pigment was discovered. Although this process was still labor-intensive, it resulted in a vibrant blue hue known as ultramarine. Artists prized this bright blue color for its lightfastness and vibrancy but reserved it for their most important paintings or subjects due to the sheer cost of the pigment.
Because of this, the 12th century Roman Catholic Church created a papal degree that dictated the color be used in depictions of the Virgin Mary, thus cementing its association to holiness, virtue, and nobility.
Although the Gospels of Matthew and Luke differ in their accounts, we know that the Holy Family received a group of shepherds as well as three wise men while they were sheltered in the stable.
These groups represent different aspects of the population, with the shepherds representing the poor and the wise men representing the nobility and the gentiles. Their meeting in the stable symbolizes Jesus's unifying power and is a testament to the overall message of his life.
We hope you've enjoyed our little history lesson this week.
This iconic scene has become such an integral part of the season for many, but it's easy to lose sight of its true meaning.
As you gather around your friends and family this Christmas Eve, take a moment to honor the sacrifices and trials that one family in Bethlehem endured for the sake of humanity.