Medieval to Modern: the nativity scene evolution

by Aileen Mitchell 4. December 2015 16:00

The styles and media of art have evolved throughout history to give us the wide variety of works that we see today. But does a change in period style alter people’s depictions of a story?

We took a linear approach to this question and looked at some of the most famous paintings of the nativity scene from medieval and before to modern day to see what aspects of the story may have changed, and which stayed the same.

 Unknown Master, Nativity Scene in Castelseprio (9th Century)

We begin with the painting that appears to be the most inclusive with regards to the actual biblical narrative, but unfortunately one of the most difficult to see.

Closely scrutinising the work, Mary can be found on the left, Joseph away over to the right – facing away from Mary, and some “oxen standing by” along the right. There are two people at the foot of Mary’s bed that look as though they could be attending to something – this is possibly where Jesus was depicted.

This fresco was discovered at the Roman fort, Castelseprio during the 1950s, which was turned into an archaeological park. 

Unknown Master, Nativity Scene in Cappello Palatina Palermo (1150)

The second work allows us to see what was included in the first but much more clearly. Beautifully preserved from the royal chapel of the Norman Kings of Sicily, this again depicts an accurate recreation of the nativity story.

Joseph, still facing away from the scene, is on the left this time. Angels are present, as are the three wise men, Mary, Jesus, and the stable animals. The wise men are behind Mary - the main subject – to reflect that they were not present at the time of birth in the narrative, but arrived some weeks later.

Giotti di Bondone, Nativity Scene in the Lower Church of San Francesco d’Assisi (painted 1304 – 1306)

We now have the name of the artist for the next painting. As style begins to change, there is more depth to the painting.

At this point, it may be worth explaining what is turning into a recurring theme of ‘grumpy Joseph’. Although perhaps a little ham-acted to the modern eye, Joseph is often depicted to show strong feelings about the birth.

There are references to Joseph not taking Mary’s news very well in the bible, despite his parents being supportive. With historical non-religious context, it is evident that a pre-marital birth was less than ideal. It was a capital offence for women to conceive outside of marriage. There was also a cultural stigma attached to such acts.

Paul Gauguin, Geburt Christi, des Gottessohnes (1896)

Jumping forward to the 19th century, Paul Gauguin depicts a much more interpretive manger scene. In keeping with Gauguin’s desire to push boundaries and create pure primitivism in his paintings, this piece is also in his famous style.

It is here that we begin to see a change. Where is Joseph? This seems to be very a deliberate omission, as Gauguin has included the oxen, which are arguably less crucial in the detail of the story. It seems that as time progresses, the focus on Joseph gradually begins to fade and Mary becomes more the main subject.

Tom Hunter, commissioned by The Guardian (2009)

Moving swiftly on to modern day, Joseph is again absent in the story. This idea was also made clear when The Guardian challenged nine leading contemporary artists to create their own nativity scene to address the theme of mother and child symbolism. The artists were asked to depict what this theme meant in a more modern, secular society.

Despite this being a thoroughly contemporary piece, there are subtle tributes to classic manger scenes. The light coming from the window behind creates the soft light around the mother’s head. The mother subject also has an expression and pose similar to many renaissance paintings as she looks at her baby placed beside her.

John Squire, commissioned by The Guardian (2009)

This tribute has a very interesting twist, and perhaps one of empathy towards Mary. Again, Joseph is not present. The mother subject, this time a young girl, also pays tribute to the classic Mary pose and facial expression.

There is an interesting juxtaposition between the clothing she wears and the modern feel of a photograph. Having to put both their faces through the holes in the cardboard, Squire may be suggesting that this isn’t necessarily a chosen outcome. This plays on the notion that Mary was chosen by God.

The absence of Joseph in this work could also be addressing themes of young motherhood without the presence of a father figure – something more common in contemporary, secular society.

Rebecca Warren, commissioned by The Guardian (2009)

What seems like a quirky tribute to the nativity scene by Rebecca Warren, can be interpreted as a metaphorical tribute to the theme of sacrifice by mother and child. Western Christmas dinners are most commonly celebrated with a turkey being the main event. Depicting the birds as Mary and Jesus forces us to think about other mothers that have been sacrificed since the original bible story.

Although the more traditional scene may be lost with the more modern interpretations, we can see from these examples that the story of an immaculate conception exists and is arguably highlighted with the more contemporary pieces. This is emphasised by omitting Joseph – now that is something for him to be grumpy about!

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