Do You See What I See? Imagery in Nativity Scenes

Visual Elements in Nativity Scenes

Christ Child and Manger

The visual focus of a Nativity scene is the Christ Child, with Mary, Joseph, animals, shepherds, and wise men all playing secondary roles. The most detailed biblical account of the birth of Jesus is found in Luke (2:7), which records that Mary “gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” Early Christian art depicts the baby Jesus in these swaddling cloths—usually a square piece of cloth wrapped snugly with bandages. In medieval and Renaissance Nativities, however, the baby is often shown wearing little or no clothing, and radiating a supernatural light. This is consistent with the mystical vision of St. Bridget (Birgitta) of Sweden (1303-73), who claimed to have seen “the glorious infant lying on the earth, naked and glowing” (Revelationes Coelestes:Book 7, Chapter 21). Bridget’s “Celestial Revelations,” which were translated from Swedish into Latin and spread widely throughout Europe, contain a detailed account of her vision of the Nativity. Most modern Nativities either depict the Christ Child wrapped in swaddling cloths or almost naked with a loincloth (see photo, below).

A manger is a trough for feeding animals. In biblical times mangers were essentially boxes, either carved from stone or built from masonry. However, modern three-dimensional Nativities exhibit a wide variety of manger styles, depending on regional customs or the preference of the artisan. The manger is often made of wood, filled with hay, and placed on the ground in a stable. However, in Laos the manger is a woven reed basket suspended from the rafters of a house so that the cradle may rock, a common feature of family homes there (see photo, below).

Neapolitan presepio (Nativity scene) made by Giuseppe Ferrigno. Naples, Italy, 2007. This presepio is the work of the Giuseppe and Marco Ferrigno workshop, a fourth-generation family business. The faces, hands, lower legs, and feet of the figures are made of terracotta, which is then painted. Other parts of the body are constructed with wire wrapped in cloth so that each figure can be posed. The clothing for each character is handmade in the 18th-century style, draped in San Leucio silks. The Ferrigno family began making presepi in Naples in 1836. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of William L. Starck and Adolph P. Falcón.

Hmong Nativity, 2009. This Nativity, made of wood, bamboo, and grass, is a replica of a traditional Hmong home in Laos, a country in Southeast Asia. Mary and Joseph attend the Christ Child who, in traditional Hmong fashion, hangs in a woven straw basket suspended from the rafters. The Hmong, an ethnic group in the mountainous regions of several different countries, are a minority group within Laos. They were introduced to Christianity by missionaries beginning in the 19th century. The figures for this Nativity are carved from a local soft wood, but not during the rainy season, when the wood is too wet. Collection of Glencairn Museum.

Stable or Cave

“The Friendly Beasts,” a traditional Christmas carol, tells us that Jesus “was humbly born in a stable rude, and the friendly beasts around him stood.” While the New Testament never mentions a stable, Luke (2:7) recounts that Mary “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” The earliest Christians located the manger in a cave. The Church of the Nativity, which dates to the 4th century, was built over the cave in Bethlehem where the birth was believed to have taken place. The Infancy Gospel of James (chapter 18) also places the Nativity in a cave, but the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew combines the two locations, explaining that on the third day after the birth “Mary went out of the cave and, entering a stable, placed the child in the manger” (chapter 14).

In early Christian art the cave was the setting for Nativity scenes, and this continues to be the case with Nativities made by the Eastern Christian Church. Eastern icons place the newborn Christ at the mouth of a deep cave, in order to symbolize His descent into the very depth of the human condition. A free-standing stable has always been customary in western European art, although makers of Nativities in Italy prefer the grotto (an artificial construction or excavation made to resemble a cave). In paintings of the Italian Renaissance, ruined Roman architecture sometimes appears in the background of a Nativity scene to indicate that, due to the birth of Christ, the old pagan culture is now falling away. The tradition of including classical ruins in the scene continues to this day with some modern Nativities (see photo, below).

"Christmas Manger Set," USA, early 1940s. This cardboard tabletop Nativity was published by Concordia Publishing House from illustrations first produced by artist George Hinke. A base is provided with special tabs to hold the 17 lithographed figures upright; each tab is carefully labeled so that even a child can assemble it. Hinke was born in 1883 in Berlin, Germany, where he trained as a painter. He immigrated to the United States in 1923. Hinke specialized in religious subjects and nostalgic scenes of small-town American life. He is best remembered for his illustrations of children’s books such as Joseph’s Story, which tells the Nativity story from Joseph’s point of view, and Jolly Old Santa Claus. Collection of Glencairn Museum.

This contemporary Nativity scene, made in China, reflects an old artistic tradition. In paintings of the Italian Renaissance, ruined Roman architecture was sometimes used in the background of a Nativity scene to symbolize the fall of the old order (paganism). Within the crumbling temple is the Holy Family, representing the birth of the new order (Christianity). Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Rita Bonaccorsi Bocher.

Ox and Ass

Caltagirone, a town on the island of Sicily, has long been famous as a center for the production of ceramics. Nativity figures have been made here since the Middle Ages, and today many of the workshops continue this tradition. This set was purchased in Caltagirone around the year 2000. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Rita Bonaccorsi Bocher.

The Christmas carol “Good Christian Men Rejoice” proclaims that “ox and ass before Him bow, and He is in the manger now; Christ is born today.” The humble ox and ass, which are never mentioned in the New Testament, are almost always present in Nativity scenes, often with their heads bowed over the manger (see photo, below). These animals appear in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (14:1), which interprets them as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophesy. According to Pseudo-Matthew, after entering the stable Mary placed the Child in a manger and “an ox and an ass adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, ‘The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib’” (Isaiah 1:3). The passage in Isaiah continues, “but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Early Christian theologians found allegorical meaning in the presence of the ox and ass at the Nativity, with the ox representing Israel and the ass the Gentiles. The divine Christ Child came to save people of all nations.

The ox and ass are included in Nativity art from the very beginning, even when Mary and Joseph are absent. This 4th century sarcophagus lid in Milan shows the two animals flanking the manger of the Christ Child, without Mary or any other human attendants. From this period on the ox and ass were prominently featured, and they continue to be included in many modern Nativity scenes.


The biblical accounts in Matthew and Luke make it clear that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was miraculously born of a virgin, and “the virgin’s name was Mary” (Luke 1:27). Luke records that Mary was present with the babe during the visit from the shepherds (2:16), and Matthew says that when the wise men came they “saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him” (2:11). The Bible provides very little information about Mary’s background, but she figures prominently in the New Testament Apocrypha. 

Mary is sometimes absent from the earliest artistic representations of the Nativity, but by the end of the 5th century she is always found at the manger. For the first thousand years of Christian art she was usually depicted lying down, in a posture apparently intended to convey exhaustion after giving birth. This begins to change in western European art during the 14th century, and from the late 15th century onward Mary is normally shown kneeling, with both hands together, praying to her divine Child. Joseph and the shepherds often kneel with her (see photo, below).

Mary’s kneeling pose, with her hands folded in prayer, reflects the influence of certain Franciscan writings and also the mystical visions of St. Bridget (for St. Bridget see above, "Christ Child and Manger," and below, "Joseph"). According to Bridget’s vision, before the birth “the Virgin knelt with great reverence, putting herself at prayer.” After the birth, “having bowed her head and joined her hands, with great dignity and reverence she adored the boy and said to Him: ‘Welcome, my God, my Lord, and my Son!’” (Revelationes Coelestes: Book 7, Chapter 21) 

With three-dimensional Nativities the kneeling pose for Mary predominates, her hands being placed together in prayer or crossed on her chest. Only occasionally is she shown reclining, as in this polymer clay Nativity made in 2007 by Judy Gibson King (see photo, below). Here Mary is shown asleep with her head in Joseph’s lap, while he holds the baby Jesus. The color of Mary’s clothing is frequently light blue; however, red, white and other colors are not unusual. 

This olivewood Nativity was made by Palestinian Christians on the West Bank of the Jordan River. According to the New Testament the birthplace of Jesus was Bethlehem, a city on the central West Bank about six miles south of Jerusalem. Olivewood carving has provided local residents with a livelihood since the 16th and 17th centuries, when Franciscans taught the craft to local residents, who then began making small religious souvenirs for pilgrims. The wood comes from branches left over from the pruning of olive trees. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Ten Thousand Villages.

Nativity scene by Judy Gibson King, USA, 2007. Handmade from polymer clay, wood, and natural materials. King began making religious figures out of polymer clay as a form of private meditation and prayer, but her work has since become a full-time occupation. This Nativity has a contemporary feel; Mary lies asleep with her head in Joseph’s lap while he holds the baby Jesus. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Alan and Mary Liz Pomeroy.


Papier-mache Nativity, Italy, 1950s and 60s. This Nativity set was was owned by Dr. Rita Bonaccorsi Bocher and her husband Herman “Bud” Bocher. Dr. Bocher is one of the founders of The Friends of the Creche, the only national Nativities organization in the USA. She has also been the publisher and editor of The Crèche Herald since its first appearance in 1997. In 2008, at the 18th International Crèche Congress in Augsburg, Germany, Dr. Bocher was awarded the Medal of the International Federation of Crèche Societies for her efforts in promoting the Nativity tradition. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Rita Bonaccorsi Bocher.

In the biblical account Joseph, the husband of Mary, is described as being a descendant of King David (Luke 2:4) and“a just man” (Matthew 1:19). The Bible does not reveal Joseph’s age, but in art he has traditionally been depicted as an old man, sometimes bald, in keeping with his portrayal in a number of non-biblical texts. In the Infancy Gospel of James, for example, Joseph says, “I have sons and am old” (9:2). Some modern Nativities retain this tradition by giving Joseph grey hair (see photo, below).

Joseph is frequently shown holding a staff, which sometimes terminates in a flower. This attribute has its origins in an apocryphal story of how Joseph was selected to be Mary’s husband. Several of the apocryphal Gospels, and also Jacobus de Voragine’s 13th-century book, The Golden Legend, recount that Mary lived in the Temple in Jerusalem for most of her childhood. When she reached marriageable age the high priest asked all the eligible suitors to come to the Temple with their staffs in hand. According to the Infancy Gospel of James, Joseph was chosen from among the suitors when a dove miraculously came forth from the top of his staff. In a later version of the story found in The Golden Legend (chapter 5) a dove lands on the staff, which also blossoms. For this reason, in later times the lily became the emblem of St. Joseph. Joseph is shown with a lily in this ceramic Nativity made by Josefina Aguilar in Oaxaca, Mexico (see photo, below).

Beginning in the 15th century, paintings sometimes show Joseph holding a candle. This attribute refers to a passage from a mystical vision of St. Bridget of Sweden (1303-73):

“With her there was a very dignified old man [i.e. Joseph]; and with them they had both an ox and an ass. When they had entered the cave, and after the ox and the ass had been tied to the manger, the old man went outside and brought to the Virgin a lighted candle and fixed it in the wall and went outside in order not to be personally present at the birth” (Revelationes Coelestes: Book 7, Chapter 21).

St. Bridget goes on to say that, once the Christ Child was born, the cave where the birth took place was filled with an ineffable divine light that completely outshone the earthly light of Joseph’s candle. In later centuries artists replaced Joseph’s candle with a lantern—not necessarily in reference to St. Bridget’s vision, but simply to light the space in the stable or grotto. Many modern Nativities continue to give Joseph a lantern, such as this hand painted wooden example from Russia (see photo, below).

Painted ceramic Nativity by Josefina Aguilar, Octolán de Morelas, Oaxaca, Mexico, circa 1990. Josefina is perhaps the best known of the four Aguilar sisters, Mexican folk artists who live in Octolán, a village near the city of Oaxaca. Josefina was the first of her sisters to achieve international recognition when Nelson Rockefeller began collecting her pieces in the 1970s. Today the folk art of the Aguilar sisters can be seen in museums and private collections around the world. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Rita Bonaccorsi Bocher and Frank and Mary Bonaccorsi Herzel.

This handcarved and painted Nativity in five separate pieces was made in the town of Sergiev Posad by an artist who signed her name only as “Olya.” Sergiev Posad is the site of The Trinity Lavra of Saint Sergius, the most important monastery in Russia and the center of the Russian Orthodox Church. The town of Sergiev Posad has been producing wood carvings and toys for centuries, and is widely known as the birthplace of the Russian nesting doll (matrioshka). Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Alan and Mary Liz Pomeroy


The Gospel of Matthew makes no mention of shepherds, but Luke’s description of their role in the Nativity runs to twelve verses (2:8-20). Art historians generally divide this portion of the Christmas story into two scenes—the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Shepherds—with overlap sometimes occurring between the two. Nativities often portray the shepherds as reacting to the news of the Annunciation, or in the act of Adoration, or both.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds occurred at night while they were in the field watching their flocks. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and “the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear” (Luke 2:9). However, the angel gave them the good news that Christ the Savior was born, and revealed to them that in Bethlehem they would find “a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (2:12). Once the angel was finished speaking, many more angels (the “heavenly host”) appeared to the shepherds, saying, “Glory to God in the highest!” (2:14). This example of the Annunciation to the Shepherds, from a 15th-century Book of Hours at Glencairn Museum, shows two shepherds in the hills tending their flock, looking up to the sky with angels above (see photo, below). The artist has included a dog in the scene, an animal commonly found in Nativities accompanying the shepherds and sheep.

Paper Nativity by Maud and Miska Petersham, United States, 1933. The Petershams were a husband-and-wife illustration and writing team who produced many books for children. In 1931 they published a Nativity book, The Christ Child, with text taken from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Garden City, NY: Doubleday). This pop-up paper crèche, produced in 1933, is adapted from illustrations in that book. In 1949, while living in Glencairn, Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn gave over 100 copies of The Christ Child as gifts to family and friends. The Pitcairns also commissioned two watercolor paintings by Maud Petersham that they used as Christmas cards in the 1960s. Collection of Glencairn Museum.

This illustration of the Annunciation to the Shepherds comes from a 15th-century Flemish Book of Hours in the collection of Glencairn Museum (07.MS.639). Books of Hours were prayer books for the laity. Glencairn’s book includes a number of other pictures from the Christmas story, including the Annunciation to Mary, the Visitation of Mary to Elizabeth, the Nativity, the Adoration of the Wise Men, the Presentation in the Temple, the Massacre of the Innocents, and the Flight into Egypt.

The Gospel of Luke describes how, after the angel gave the good news to the shepherds, they decided to go to Bethlehem to see the Christ Child. They went “with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in the manger” (2:16). The shepherds then left to spread the news, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (2:20). It was in connection with these passages from Luke that the Adoration of the Shepherds first appeared as an artistic theme during the Middle Ages. However, Luke does not specifically say that the shepherds adored the Christ Child. Nativity scenes with shepherds kneeling at the manger probably developed by analogy with the wise men, who presented gifts and “fell down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11). The Adoration of the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Wise Men are frequently combined into a single Nativity scene (see photo, below), although many Christians believe that the shepherds and wise men did not visit Jesus at the same time.

This Nativity set, which shows the shepherds and wise men in the act of adoration, was probably made in southern Germany around 1920. Figures like these were a cottage industry, made in small quantities in homes and sold by peddlers who traveled around Germany and neighboring countries. Chalkware sets were common in both middle class and lower middle class homes. Collection of Glencairn Museum.

In contrast to the wise men, who presented costly gifts of “gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11), the shepherds are portrayed in art as representatives of the poor. They are dressed simply, and sometimes present modest gifts to the Christ Child. Matthew does not say how many shepherds were present at the manger. When three shepherds are depicted, often one is young, one is middle aged, and one is old, representing the different stages of life. Their usual attributes are the shepherd’s crook and the flute; bagpipes are also common, especially in Nativities from Italy. 

Wise Men

In the New Testament the story of the wise men (also known as the “magi”) is found only in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12). According to Matthew, the wise men came “from the East” to Jerusalem asking, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him” (2:2). When the star appeared over the place where the Christ Child was, the wise men went “into the house” and “fell down and worshiped him.” They then offered Him gifts of “gold and frankincense and myrrh” (2:11). Matthew gives no further information about the identity of these travelers, who are the subject of the artistic theme known as the Adoration of the Wise Men. In art the wise men, like the shepherds, are often shown kneeling with their gifts. Modern Nativities may replace the gold, frankincense, and myrrh with gifts appropriate to the local culture of the artist. For example, this ceramic Nativity, made on the Jemez Pueblo by Native American artist Cheryl Fragua, shows the wise men offering painted pottery and a drum (see photo, below).

“Magi” is the English form of the original Greek word magoi, a plural noun. Matthew specifies no exact number of wise men, but early Christian art presents them as two, three, four, or six in number, with three being the most common. Eventually the number became fixed at three, perhaps because it was assumed that a different man brought each of the three gifts. The meaning of the term magoi in the context of Matthew’s narrative has been a topic of discussion since the early days of the Christian church. They have been variously described as “sages,” “diviners,” “astrologers,” or “priests.” In keeping with Matthew, in the earliest art they appear in vaguely eastern dress and headgear. As early as the third century, however, interpreters of the Bible began to identify the wise men as kings, in connection with a prophesy found in the Psalms: “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!” (Psalm 72:10). By the time of the Middle Ages the “three kings” were being depicted in art with crowns and elaborate garments (see photo, below). Many modern Nativities continue this tradition.

In England, the Venerable Bede (d. 735) wrote that the wise men represent the three parts of the world—Asia, Africa, and Europe—and that they signify the three sons of Noah, who fathered the races of these three continents (see Genesis chapter 10). In time this idea found expression in art, and by the late Middle Ages one of the kings was often being depicted as a black African. The kings are sometimes accompanied by retinues, which include animals from their presumed places of origin; camels, horses, and elephants are the most common. As with the shepherds, the three kings are sometimes shown representing the different stages of life: young, middle aged, and old (see photo, below).

This Pueblo Indian Nativity (nacimiento) was made in 2011 by Cheryl Fragua of the Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, using clay and natural pigments. Most of the residents of the Pueblos have accepted Christianity as an addition to their own pre-Christian traditions. Today a number of Pueblo Indian artisans make Nativities regularly, along with other works such as the famous ceramic storyteller figures. Indian culture is rich with myths and stories, which are used to convey traditions and values. The storyteller and Nativity figures usually have closed eyes and an open mouth in order to “let the stories out.” Collection of Glencairn Museum.

This limestone relief with the Adoration of the Wise Men, in the collection of Glencairn Museum (09.SP.119), was made in 13th-century France. The first wise man, whose arm is broken off, is depicted kneeling and presenting a gift. All three men are represented as kings with crowns, in keeping with medieval tradition.

Santons from France made from fired clay, cloth, and other materials, 2008. The French Revolution played a role in establishing the tradition of santons or “little saints.” Before the churches in France were closed in 1794 it was customary for them to put on Nativity plays; when the revolutionary authorities banned these plays individuals began to set up Nativities in their own homes. Santons come in a variety of sizes. These large figures of the three wise men were made by an artist signed “Marie,” from Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. Collection of Glencairn Museum, gift of Alan and Mary Liz Pomeroy.