Paintings of the Nativity

Many painters since the fourth century have depicted the Nativity, or birth, of Jesus, which is celebrated worldwide at Christmas. These artistic depictions are based on narratives in the Bible in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke and are often incredibly detailed and quite large in size. Here are three Italian painters born a few hundred years apart, who exemplify the increasingly human dramatization of the Nativity scene. Following these are links to a sampling of Nativity paintings for the season done by artists from different cultures and times.

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The Nativity by Guido da Siena

Nativity, detail from Antependium of St Peter Enthroned by Guido da Siena (circa 1250 -1300), tempera and gold on wood, 100x141 cm, circa 1280. A. de Gregorio/DEA/Getty Images

The Nativity (36x48 cm), by Italian painter Guido da Siena, was created in the 1270s as part of a twelve-part polyptych depicting scenes from the life of Christ. The particular panel shown here, which is tempera on wood, is now at the Louvre in Paris. In this painting, as is typical of Byzantine paintings of the Nativity, the figures are shown in a cave, the Cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem, with a miniature mountain rising over it. 

Mary lies on a large stuffed cushion beside the infant who is raised up in a wooden box receiving a beam of light from above. Joseph is in the foreground resting his head on his hand, next to a second "baby Jesus" who is being bathed by midwives. An oxen, representing the Jewish people, is depicted above the baby in the cradle. 

Typical of Byzantine art, the figures are stylized and elongated, with little expression on their faces and no sense of human connection between the figures.

See: Church of Nativity walk-through, where Jesus Christ was born

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The Nativity by Giotto in Scrovegni Chapel Padua

Nativity, by Giotto (1267-1337), detail from the cycle of frescoes Life and Passion of Christ, 1303-1305, after the restoration in 2002, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Veneto, Italy. A. Dagli Orti/De Agostini Picture Library/Getty Images

Giotto di Bondone (circa1267-1337), an Early Renaissance painter from Florence, Italy, is today considered one of the greatest painters ever. In 1305-1306 he painted monumental frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua dedicated to the life of Mary, from which the Nativity painting shown here comes.

Giotto di Bondone is known for making his figures appear as though they were drawn from life, for the figures have both mass and weight and have more gesture and expression than those of Byzantine paintings. There is also more of a sense of human drama in this painting of the Nativity and more connection between the figures than is represented in the stylized figures of Byzantine paintings such as the previous one shown above by Guido da Siena.

This painting by Giotto also depicts the ox and the ass. Although there is no Biblical narrative of the birth of Jesus that includes the ox and the ass, they are common elements of Nativity scenes. Traditionally the ox is seen as Israel and the ass is seen as the Gentiles. You can read more about interpretations of their meaning in the context of the Nativity in the article The Ass and the Ox in the Nativity Icon.

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The Nativity at Night, by Guido Reni

The Nativity at Night, 1640 (oil on canvas), Guido Reni, National Gallery, London, UK. Photo Credit Getty Images

Guido Reni (1575-1642) was an Italian painter of high-Baroque style. He painted his Nativity at Night in 1640. You can see in his painting a mastery of light and dark, shadow and illumination.There is bright light on the main subject of the painting - the baby and those close to him - emanating from the heavenly angels above.The ox and ass are present, but they are in the dark, off to the side, barely visible.  

In this painting, the people seem real and there is a palpable human buzz and excitement about the birth of this baby. There is also a dynamic sense of movement in the motion of the figures and the implied lines and curves of the composition. 

Read: Reni's Nativity painting, 'Adoration of the Magi,' comes into greater focus at Cleveland Museum of Art (2008) to find out more about Reni and another of his Nativity paintings.

See:  The Son shines in The Adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni for a high-resolution image of another Nativity painting by Reni.

Further Reading:

Bible Paintings: The Birth of Jesus Christ

The Birth of Christ: A Child is Born!

The Birth of Jesus in Art: 20 Gorgeous Paintings of the Nativity, Magi, and Shepherds