We now come to the Nativity as historically treated, in which time, place, and circumstance have to be considered as in any other actual event.
The time was the depth of winter, at midnight ; the place a poor stable. According to some authorities, this stable was the interior of a cavern, still shown at Bethlehem as the scene of the Nativity ; in front of which was a ruined house, once inhabited by Jesse, the father of David, and near the spot where David pastured his sheep : but the house was now a shed partly thatched, and open at that bitter season to all the winds of heaven. Here it was that the Blessed Virgin ” brought forth her first-born Son, wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger.”
We find in the early Greek representations, and in the early Italian painters who imitated the Byzantine models, that in the arrangement a certain pattern was followed : the locality is a sort of cave literally a hole in a rock ; the Virgin-mother reclines on a couch ; near her lies the new-born Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. In one very ancient example (a miniature of the ninth century in a Greek Menologium), an attendant is washing the Child.
But from the fourteenth century we find this treatment discontinued. It gave just offence. The greatest theologians insisted that the birth of the Infant Christ was as pure and miraculous as his conception : and it was considered little less than heretical to, portray Mary reclining on a couch as one exhausted by the pangs of childbirth (Isaiah lxvi. 7), or to exhibit assistants as washing the heavenly Infant. ” To her alone,” says St. Bernard, “did not the punishment of Eve extend.” “Not in sorrow,” says Bishop Taylor, ” not in pain, but in the posture and guise of worshippers (that is, kneeling), and in the midst of glorious thoughts and speculations, did Mary bring her Son into the world.”
We must seek for the accessories and circumstances usually introduced by the painters in the old legendary traditions then accepted and believed. (Protevangelion, xiv.) Thus one legend relates that Joseph went to seek a midwife, and met a woman coming down from the mountains, with whom he returned to the stable. But when they entered it was filled with light greater than the sun at noon-day ; and as the light decreased and they were able to open their eyes, they beheld Mary sitting there with her Infant at her bosom. And the Hebrew woman, being amazed, said, ” Can this be true ? ” and Mary anwered, “It is true ; as there is no child like unto my Son, so there is no woman like unto his mother.”
These circumstances we find in some of the early representations, more or less modified by the taste of the artist. I have seen, for instance, an old German print, in which the Virgin, “in the posture and guise of worshippers,” kneels before her child as usual ; while the background exhibits a hilly country, and Joseph, with a lantern in his hand, is helping a woman over a stile. Sometimes there are two women, and then the second is always Mary Salome, who, according to a passage in the same popular authority, visited the mother in her hour of travail.
The angelic choristers in the sky, or upon the roof of the stable, sing the Gloria in excelsis Deo ; they are never, I believe, omitted, and in early pictures are always three in number; but in later pictures the mystic three become, a chorus of musicians. Joseph is generally sitting by, leaning on his staff in profound meditation, or asleep as one overcome by fatigue ; or with a taper or a lantern in his hand, to express the night-time.
Among the accessories, the ox and the ass are indispensable. The introduction of these animals rests on an antique tradition mentioned by St. Jerome, and also on two texts of prophecy : ” The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib” (Isaiah i. 3) ; and Habakkuk iii. 4 is rendered in the Vulgate, ” He shall lie down between the ox and the ass.” From the sixth century, which is the supposed date of the earliest extant, to the sixteenth century, there was never any representation of the Nativity without these two animals ; thus in the old carol so often quoted
Agnovit bos et asinus Quod Puer erat Dominus!
In some of the earliest pictures the animals kneel, a confessing the Lord ” (Isaiah xliii, 20). In some instances they stare into the manger with a most naïve expression of amazement at what they find there. One of the old Latin hymns, De Nativitate Domini, describes them, in that wintry night, as warming the new-born Infant with their breath ; and they have always been interpreted as symbols, the ox as emblem of the Jews, the ass of the Gentiles.
I wonder if it has ever occurred to those who have studied the inner life and meaning of these old representations owed to them, perhaps, homilies of wisdom, as well as visions of poetry that the introduction of the ox and the ass, those symbols of animal servitude and inferiority, might be otherwise translated; that their pathetic dumb recognition of the Saviour of the world might be interpreted as extending to them also a participation in his mission of love and mercy ; that since to the lower creatures it was not denied to be present at that great manifestation, they are thus brought nearer to the sympathies of our humanity, as we are thereby lifted to a nearer communion with the universal spirit of love. But this is ” considering too deeply,” perhaps, for the occasion. Return we to our pictures. Certainly we are not in danger of being led into any profound or fanciful speculations by the ignorant painters of the later schools of Art. In their ” Nativities ” the ox and ass are not, indeed, omitted ; they must be present by religious and prescriptive usage ; but they are to be made picturesque, as if they were in the stable by right, and as if it were only a stable, not a temple hallowed to a diviner significance. The ass, instead of looking devoutly into the cradle, stretches out his lazy length in the foreground ; the ox winks his eyes with a more than bovine stupidity. In some of the old German pictures, while the Hebrew ox is quietly chewing the cud, the Gentile ass ” lifts up his voice ” and brays with open mouth, as if in triumph.
One version of this subject, by Agnolo Gaddi, is conceived with much simplicity and originality. The Virgin and Joseph are seen together within a rude and otherwise solitary building. She points expressively to the manger where lies the divine Infant, while Joseph leans on his staff and appears lost in thought.
Correggio has been much admired for representing in his famous Nativity the whole picture as lighted by the glory which proceeds from the divine Infant, as if the idea had been new and original. (” La Nette,” Dresden Gallery.) It occurs frequently before and since his time, and is founded on the legendary story quoted above, which describes the cave or stable filled with a dazzling and supernatural light.
It is not often we find the Nativity represented as an historical event without the presence of the shepherds ; nor is the supernatural announcement to the shepherds often treated as a separate subject : it generally forms part of the background of the Nativity ; but there are some striking examples.
In a print by Rembrandt he has emulated, in picturesque and poetical treatment, his famous Vision of Jacob, in the Dulwich Gallery.’ The angel (always supposed to be Gabriel) appears in a burst of radiance through the black wintry mid-night surrounded by a multitude of the heavenly host. The shepherds fall prostrate, as men amazed and “sore afraid” (Luke ii. 9), the cattle flee different ways in terror. I do not say that this is the most elevated way of expressing the scene but, as an example of characteristic style, it is perfect.