The oldest known reference to the Christmas Festival is in the Calendar of the Year 354, in which the celebration date of Christ’s birth is December 25 for the first time, which is also the time when Christ’s birth became an important subject in Western art.
Gerard David, The Nativity with Donors and Saints Jerome and Leonard — detail, 1510-1515, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The birth of Christ is traditionally called the “Nativity,” from the Latin word for “born,” and one of its earliest representations is found on the tomb of an Ancient Roman general in Milan:
Birth of Jesus detail on Sarcophagus of Stilicho, 4th century, Sant’Ambrogio Basilica, Milan — Photo by Giovanni Dall
From the beginning, one of the characteristics of Nativity scenes is the presence of an ox and a donkey, which represent virtues such as patience, strength and humility, as well as different groups of believers.
Many of the early representations are carvings or mosaics, which have survived in better condition than paintings from those times.
Central panel of Scenes from the Life of Jesus Christ Triptych, late 10th century, Louvre Museum, Paris — Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen
Nativity Mosaic, 1132-1140, Palatine Chapel, Palermo
The first master paintings and illuminations of the Nativity date from the 14th and 15th centuries:
Giotto, Nativity Fresco, c.1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua
Duccio, Maestà, Nativity detail, 1308-1311, Museo dell’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Siena
Limbourg Brothers, Nativity in Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, Folio 44v, 1411-1489, Musée Condé, Chantilly
Fra Angelico, Nativity, c.1439, San Marco Museum, Florence
During the Renaissance, however, the birth of Christ itself became a less popular subject than what comes before and after it in the Biblical story.
What comes before is the “Annunciation,” in which the archangel Gabriel tells Mary that she will give birth to the son of God:
Fra Angelico, Annunciation, c.1430, Prado Museum, Madrid
And what comes after is the “Adoration,” which means “worship.” The first worshippers are the shepherds:
Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505-1510, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
And the second important group is the Magi, who are the three foreign kings who came from far away to worship Christ when he was born:
Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi, Adoration of the Magi, c.1440-1460, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Together, the Annunciation, Nativity and Adoration form the story of Christ’s birth, which has been celebrated on December 25 since the 4th century, inspiring quite a few masterpieces along the way.