Look under any pagan Christmas tree in any Christian home in December and you’re almost certain to find, amid the gift-wrapped boxes and the ceramic Dickens village buildings, a Nativity scene — including that of my own family, who have been displaying the same one, a dozen individual figures and a manger with a straw roof handmade in Italy, for at least 50 years. This Nativity scene is certainly modest, though no less meaningful than grander, public displays. Whether they’re in situ in their original churches or masterpieces hanging in museums, these are my favorite Nativities.
#1 The Nativity, by Lorenzo Lotto, National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)
This intriguing oil painting, completed in 1523 by the Venetian artist Lorenzo Lotto, is my favorite because of what it both does and does not include, and because of the layers of genius that revealed themselves the longer I stared at it. For starters, The Nativity is an exceptionally intimate depiction of the birth of Christ — He is accompanied only by Mary and Joseph. No Wise Men have shown up yet — no bright star in the sky is leading them; no barn animals nose around the scene; and the only shepherd stands far off in the distance, hardly noticeable and unconcerned with the miracle that has just occurred. Now, for what Lotto did include. First, he was one the earliest artists to bring Joseph back to the fore. For an extended period of time, Jesus’ stepfather had been subjugated to a barely supporting role in Nativity scenes by artists who wanted to emphasize the purity of the Virgin Mary. But, here, Lotto places him on an equal footing with Mary (even if the infant is looking up at his mother) and includes a water flask and provisions bag, alluding to Joseph’s qualifications as a good provider. Second, once my eyes started to wander from the central, brightly colored figures, I noticed Lotto’s trio of symbolic, silly, and spooky elements. Off to the right, a small pair of turtledoves resting under the eaves of the manger holds multiple meanings: historically, two turtledoves were sacrificed shortly after Jesus’ birth (an acceptable offering for those who weren’t rich enough to provide a lamb); biologically, they mate for life, working as a team to care for their offspring, as did the parental units of the Holy Family; and symbolically, they represent love, devotion, and faithfulness. At the top of the painting, three comic child-angels seem a bit unprepared for their performance, seemingly unable to find their place in the sheet music and about to launch into a Three Stooges routine. And, last, is the ominous element I’ve never seen in any other Nativity: a crucifix. Lotto’s rationale for including this anachronism remains uncertain. Perhaps he wanted to suggest that Mary and Joseph somehow knew what was in store for Jesus; perhaps he wanted to emphasize to the viewer that this is what He was born for; perhaps he desired to summarize Christ’s complete circle of life in one painting; or maybe he just wanted to remind us that as soon as we’re born, we begin our march toward death. Whatever his motivation, Lotto has created a magnificent work of art unlike any other Nativity.
#2 Nativity, by Antoine Le Moiturier, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, New York)
From the circle of French sculptor Antoine Le Moiturier, Nativity is another unusual depiction of the start of Jesus’ life that I found irresistible. Made in around 1450, the limestone sculpture was later painted and gilded. Mary kneels left of center, hands folded in prayer, beside a cradle — an empty cradle. Two angels, one with outstretched wings, seem to be tidying up while the infant Christ has taken leave of his resting spot. To find Him, I followed Mary’s eyes and slightly tilted head up, to the top of a broken brick wall, where the baby Jesus lies in a woven basket, tended to by an angel and a couple of barnyard animals, perhaps a donkey and a cow. It’s the only time I’ve ever seen Mary and Jesus separated in a Nativity. Other angels look down on Him from the upper left, while three figures (shepherds? the Magi?) admire Him from the right (the East?). In fact, the only figure not facing inward toward the infant is Joseph, who sits with his back to the whole scene. But that’s because he’s busy — he’s drying his stepson’s swaddling clothes in front of a fire. Thanks to J. Pierpont Morgan, who made a gift of this work to the museum in 1916, I could appreciate one of the world’s unique Nativities.
#3 Adoration of the Magi, by Fra Angelico and Fra Filippo Lippi, National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.)
Unlike Lotto’s private Nativity, Adoration of the Magi teems with a parade of people and animals in an utter public spectacle of humanity in bright colors — and draws quite a crowd at the National Gallery of Art. Begun by Fra Angelico and completed by Fra Filippo Lippi in around 1460, this tondo, painted in tempera on a poplar panel, is loaded with lots of curiosities. Mary, Joseph, and Jesus are placed in the forefront, their heads encircled by golden discs; an ass and an ox occupy the manger; and the Three Wise Men have arrived. So far, everything seems traditional. But then the fras Angelico and Filippo Lippi electrify the scene with almost chaotic action. Dozens and dozens of extra figures — shepherds, maidens, horses, camels, peasants, and the well off — all descend down the hillsides from two different directions. The Magi become separated: One genuflects before the infant, but the other two are shunted aside, separated by the crush of humanity coming to adore the baby Jesus. All three kings, however, wear faint halos of gold dots, symbolizing their saintliness. In the background, a crumbling white building signals the end of the pagan establishment brought on by Jesus’ birth. Atop the walls, mostly naked figures represent people who have either lost everything now that their paganism has come to an end and must start over, or never had anything to begin with who will be embraced by this savior. Almost stealing all the attention, a somewhat oversized peacock perches on the roof of the manger. The flesh of the peacock was widely believed to resist decay, hence denoting eternal life and linking earth and heaven — exactly what Jesus did.
#4 The Visit of the Magi, Ancient Spanish Monastery (North Miami Beach, Florida)
Although it was built in Spain, St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church is one of the oldest buildings in North America. This medieval monastery cloister was constructed in the town of Sacramenia in the 12th century, purchased by William Randolph Hearst in 1925, dismantled stone by stone, shipped from Spain to the United States, and reconstructed by new owners in North Miami Beach in the 1960s. Simply referred to as the Ancient Spanish Monastery, this nearly 1,000-year-old complex completely astonished me. After meandering around the arcades, cloisters and courtyards, I eventually found my way into the small church. Ribbed arches along the ceiling lead to the altar, with two small circular stained-glass windows above it. Off to the left, I noticed a marble bas-relief panel of the Nativity unobtrusively inserted into the wall. Framed on three sides by sculpted vegetation, the scene reveals Mary and the infant Jesus receiving the Three Kings — one prostrate before them, with his crown on the ground; the other two, both dressed not in the usual flowing robes but in short tunics, stand behind him, victims of age and damage: one is missing a leg, the other has lost his face and one arm, but the other arm clearly remains, extending upward with a finger pointing to the Star of Bethlehem. Other figures fill out the rest of the scene, including a trio of handmaidens with hands together in prayer and groomsmen tending the horses that carried the Magi into town. Above them all, an angel clutches a flowing banner, proclaiming the savior’s arrival to an overjoyed shepherd watching over his woolly charges. Unlike the three Nativities above, Joseph is merely a supporting player here, relegated to the manger with the ass and the ox, sitting and of a smaller stature.
#5 Stained Glass Window, St. Mary Magdalene Church (Omaha, Nebraska)
On a sleepy Sunday morning in Omaha, I stopped into a church I passed along the way to the Joslyn Art Museum. Mass had just ended, and a steady stream of people were emerging from St. Mary Magdalene Church. Going against traffic, I entered this asymmetrical building, completed in 1903 with a modest rose window and a corner tower. Light filled the airy interior with a deep-blue vaulted ceiling, pouring through the vibrant stained-glass windows that ran the gamut from Christ tenderly carrying a docile lamb on his shoulder to figures burning in the flames of hell, begging for mercy. The large three-panel window depicting the Nativity really caught my eye. Mary and the baby Jesus occupy the center panel. On the left, an unusually young Joseph partially obscures the manger. In front of him, a boyish page removes the diadem from the head of one of the Three Kings, who kneels down and offers an open box of gold. In the right panel, the second king has already removed his crown, placing it at the feet of Mary. The third king, still wearing his crown, presents the most interesting element in the scene: Swirling blue clouds of incense waft out of his golden vessel containing either frankincense or myrrh — a detail I haven’t seen anywhere else.
- Stained glass window, Sts. Cyril and Methodius and St. Raphael’s Catholic Church (New York, New York)
- Stained glass window, St. Agnes Roman Catholic Church (Brooklyn, New York)
- Stained glass window, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Cathedral (Inverness, Scotland)
- The Adoration of the Magi, by Quentin Metsys, Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York, New York)
- Crèche, Most Precious Blood Church (New York, New York)