The enduring story of the Nativity. What is the history behind it?

The Nativity scene is familiar sight in the run-up to Christmas, from the miniature figurines clustered around a manger found in churches to children’s nativity plays staged by schools, in which an errant star or sheep will inevitably wander off into the audience.

The tale of Joseph and the pregnant Mary being turned away from the fully-booked inn in Bethlehem, where they had arrived for the Census, thus leading to Jesus, the Son of God, being born in a stable (or cave, in some versions), forms the centrepiece of the Christmas Story.

The Nativity scene has been an enduring image in Christian religious art, however, the image of Joseph, the Virgin Mary and assorted farm animals clustered around a manger only emerged in the medieval period, often credited to Saint Francis of Assisi, who according to St. Bonaventure, purportedly first staged the subject in Greccio, Italy in 1223. Prior to that the story had appeared on Roman sarcophagi, with the Magi, or Three Wise Men, featured prominently due to their symbolising the impact of the birth of Christ on people of all religions and cultures. Alternatively, the Christ Child appeared alone in the manger, with no other human figures, but attended by animals. The Ox and Ass featured prominently in these early depictions, representing the Jews and the Gentiles (non-Jews), imagery which has survived consistently through to the present day.

The united Nativity/Adoration of the Magi scene later evolved to show the Virgin Mary on a throne with the Christ Child on her knee as the Magi approached from the sides, which had an interesting afterlife as a key format for Renaissance altarpieces, with the enthroned Virgin and Christ Child now flanked by Patrons, Donors, Saints or Apostles. These depictions now had a devotional function, as opposed to a narrative one. Images of The Nativity itself also became a regular part of cycles depicting the lives of both Christ and the Virgin, thus extending beyond their Christmas-specific context.


In the Post-Roman period, the image split into two traditions, the Eastern and Western. The Byzantine Nativity showed a reclining Virgin with the Baby Jesus on an elevated structure close by within the Cave of the Nativity in Bethlehem, an iconography which has passed down almost unaltered to the modern Eastern Orthodox tradition. This was often accompanied by a separate scene in the foreground in which Jesus was shown again, being bathed by midwives. The Western tradition chose a similar iconography, but favoured the stable over the cave and the midwifes, objected to by Latin theologians, quietly and progressively dropped away.

From the Late-Medieval through to the Baroque era, the use of chiaroscuro, or a pronounced contrast between darkness and light, increased. The central scene of the nativity, lit by a strong light source, was usually thrown into sharp relief against a shadowed background. This was inspired by a vision of St. Bridget of Sweden who saw a blond Virgin and a ‘Divine light’ which drowned out all others.

Throughout the Renaissance, The Nativity began to be increasingly conflated with another narrative scene, this time The Adoration of The Magi and the more limited Virgin and Child manger scenes became less popular. After the turn of the nineteenth century, broader scenes set within landscapes provided an interesting study for artists who generally focused on secular works.

Today, a wide variety of styles and traditions provide an opportunity for artists and spectators alike to ponder the true meaning of the Christmas Story.