Do You See What I See? Imagery in Nativity Scenes

Apocryphal Sources for the Nativity

Even with the information in the two Gospels combined, Matthew and Luke provide us with relatively few details about the Nativity event. A curious reader—or an artist wishing to create a Nativity—is left with many unanswered questions. For example, from Luke we learn that there was no room for the family in the “inn” (Greek = kataluma, sometimes translated “guest house”), so the baby was laid in a manger. But was the manger located in a stable, a cave, or perhaps on the ground floor of a house? Since a manger is a trough for feeding livestock, what kinds of animals might have been nearby? How many wise men (Greek = magoi) came to present gifts to Jesus? And what adventures might the family have faced during their flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s persecution?

Papier-mache Nativity. Italy (figures), USA (cardboard stable). During the 1950s and 60s, many American families purchased inexpensive Nativity sets like this one at five-and-dime stores like Woolworth’s, W.T. Grant, and G.C. Murphy. (Several of the figures in this set have a Murphy’s sticker on the base.) Hand painted in Italy, the figures are hollow, with thin papier-mache walls. Most starter sets included the Holy Family, the three wise men, an ox and a donkey, but many different kinds of figures could be bought individually. Nativity sets owned by families were often assembled over a period of years, resulting in figures of different sizes, materials, and countries of origin. Collection of Glencairn Museum.

Answers to questions like these can be found in a group of texts written during the first thousand or so years of Christianity known as the New Testament Apocrypha. As the word apocrypha (“hidden”) suggests, these writings have not been recognized by church authorities as being part of the official canon of the New Testament. In fact, due to their dubious historical content and fanciful tone, the early church often discouraged people from reading them. But the New Testament Apocrypha, some of which were written as early as the second century, maintain many of the essentials of the Christian message, while at the same time providing additional details, color, and drama. In fact, because people were eager for more information about the birth and early life of Jesus, a special genre of apocryphal literature developed, now called “infancy Gospels.” Many of the visual elements we associate with Nativity scenes today come from details provided in these early Christian writings.

For a long time the best known published source for the apocrypha in English was The Apocryphal New Testament: Being the Apocryphal Gospels, Acts, Epistles, and Apocalypses with Other Narratives and Fragments by M.R. James (1924); this has now been updated by J.K. Elliott with The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation (1993). In addition, some of the best known apocryphal texts with information about the Nativity and infancy of Christ are available on the Web in older English translation. Links to three of these are below:

The Flight into Egypt, from the Infancy of Christ Window. Pot-metal glass. France, Abbey of Saint-Denis (near Paris), circa 1145. This stained glass panel depicts a legend surrounding the story of the Flight into Egypt. The biblical story from the Gospel of Matthew describes how Joseph was commanded in a dream to escape from Herod with Mary and the baby Jesus to Egypt. The legend from Pseudo-Matthew shown in this panel, not told in the Gospels, tells of a moment on the journey when Mary is weary and in need of food. Jesus commands the palm tree to bend down so his mother can pluck the fruit. Collection of Glencairn Museum (03.SG.114).

One example of the influence of apocryphal texts on visual representations of the Nativity involves the question of what kinds of animals might have been present at the manger. The ox and ass, which are customarily depicted with their heads leaning over the manger of the Christ Child, appear in apocryphal sources but not in the New Testament (see below, "Ox and Ass," in Visual Elements in Nativity Scenes). In addition, although the Gospels of Matthew and Luke do not specify the manner in which Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, Christians are nevertheless familiar with the image of a pregnant Mary riding on a donkey, accompanied by Joseph.  The Infancy Gospel of James (Protevangelium) described this scene in the second half of the second century: “And [Joseph] saddled his she-ass and sat her on it; his son led, and Joseph followed” (17:2). A similar scene is described in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (chapter 13)

The Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew also provides us with colorful details about the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt. According to Pseudo-Matthew, on the third day of their journey Mary becomes fatigued by the desert heat, and the family takes refuge under the shade of a date palm. When Mary expresses a wish for some of the tree’s fruit, which is beyond their reach, the Christ Child commands the palm, “O tree, bend your branches, and refresh my mother with your fruit.” Immediately the tree obeys and bends down to Mary, and they gather its fruit (chapters 20-21). This episode, which finds no parallel in the New Testament, has nevertheless been represented frequently in the history of art. Glencairn Museum is fortunate to have in its medieval stained glass collection an illustration of the story (see photo, below), on a panel made for the Infancy of Christ window at the abbey church of St. Denis, near Paris (c. 1145).

It is sometimes impossible to know whether a non-biblical element in a Nativity scene has been inspired by an apocryphal text, or if the artistic depiction came first. In their book, Art and the Christian Apocrypha, David R. Cartlidge and J. Keith Elliott contend that with early Christian art the written and visual sources are interdependent: “The developing consensus is that oral traditions, texts (rhetorical arts) and the pictorial arts all interact so that all the arts demonstrate the church’s ‘thinking out loud’ in both rhetorical and pictorial images” (2001, xv).