Do Nativity scenes owe more to artists than historians?

Do Nativity scenes owe more to artists than historians? January 1, 2013

I am blessed to be a member of an absolutely wonderful congregation. It’s a healthy mix of people who work together to keep the mission of our congregation going and thriving. Our regular focus on the Divine Service inspires all of our mission work, including a parish school and community programs.

I had to say that before pointing out this one tiny … issue. See, we have this 100-year-old Nativity scene we set up each year. The older folks in the congregation have let us know that this must always happen. Somehow over the years it got mixed with both another Nativity scene and with a Noah’s Ark scene. It’s ridiculous. In with the oxen and cattle and camels are pairs of zebras and rhinos and elephants. There is some theological beauty in combining these two scenes, but it’s kind of a train wreck.

I thought of that when I read this great story by Tim Townsend in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. For all the importance that Nativity scenes have in the lives of Christians in America and throughout the world, it’s interesting how little coverage we get of them in news stories. For many, it might be difficult to write an interesting or newsy story about them.

When the duke of Urbino in Italy needed a gift for the queen of Spain, he turned to his friend, the painter Federico Barocci.

Barocci, a devout Catholic, worked during the Counter-Reformation, and in 1597 he had painted his version of one of the most recognizable images in all Christendom.

And as Christians mark Jesus’ birth today, they will do so with imagery that owes less, perhaps, to historical accuracy than to artists such as Barocci and thousands of others who preceded him for 1,000 years.

The hook is that Barocci’s Nativity is on display at the St. Louis Art Museum. But Townsend uses this as item to write an interesting story exploring the theology and artistry of the scene:

Historians and theologians say it is that sense of family intimacy, coupled with the humbling circumstances of Christ’s birth as told in the Gospel of Luke, that has resonated with Christians for centuries.

Many Christians hang a crucifix or cross — a symbol of the resurrection — in their homes, “but the other pillar of Christianity is the incarnation,” said St. Louis Archbishop Robert Carlson. “When the savior of the world was born, he wasn’t born in a palace, he was not born as a king. He came as a defenseless child.”

And, of course, Luke made Christ’s vulnerability even more stark by placing Mary and Joseph in a stable. When the time came for Mary to deliver the child, she “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn,” wrote the author of Luke’s Gospel.

There is a ton of history packed into the story as well as interpretations of same, making it a rare, meaty story in the midst of a lot of fluffy stories. You should read the whole thing.

The whole thing reminded me of the stir over Pope Benedict’s writing that the Gospels don’t mention any animals at the manger. Townsend mentions it toward the end of the piece, which concludes:

Eventually manger scenes became a feature in many Christian homes throughout the world. Carlson said that when he was growing up, he loved to play with the creche figures in his parents’ house.

“What got me into trouble was that I also had these little toy soldiers,” he said. Did he ever mingle the two? “Never,” he said, smiling.

Carlson has 14 creches decorating the archbishop’s residence on Lindell Boulevard at this time of year. He keeps two of them up year-round. One, a gift from a family in South Dakota made of wood and dating to the 19th century, sits on a mantle directly across from the desk in his home office. He looks at it every day.

“To me,” he said, “it’s just a simple reminder that God loved us so much that he sent his son to be with us.”

Our house currently has three manger scenes: a toy one for the children, a nice ceramic one my mother sent me this year and the one my Dad picked up when he was studying in Israel. It’s such an obvious point but it’s nice to see something so important to me and my family in the news. What’s more, it’s nice to learn more about the history of their development and their significance throughout the ages.

Nativity image via Shutterstock.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Daniel

    Some say, a cave. How do we make the decision that it was a stable and not a cave? Or was it both? I have heard and read the argument that more typically in local architecture stable animals were kept in the courtyard of a residential building, or even upstairs for warmth. This argument seems to make it more likely that a local cave would make a good place for a birth arrangement than what we think of as a stable in a barn. When the magi arrived some time later, the parents were dwelling in a house. I don’t say this to be quarrelsome, but how could all this material be covered well in an article about artwork? Mollie, I rather enjoy your terse imagery.

  • Jerry

    It’s a nice story but one word jarred me. And that is the scare-quoted word “discovery”. That cried out for more explanation and, for me, strongly marred the story. Either that should have been left or there should have been some words about why that “discovery” is considered to be suspect.

    Devotion to the birth of Christ was helped along by the “discovery” of the site of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem by Constantine’s mother, Helena, and the subsequent construction of the Church of the Nativity on that site.

  • tmatt
  • TeaPot562

    Typically the verification of items connected with Our Lord’s 33 years on earth by Christians after 312 A.D. was determined either by visions of some in the party doing the search, or by miracle healings accomplished by the artifacts. How else to determine which wood comes from the “True Cross”? Or which relics came from the Magi (Cathedral of Cologne or Koln, Germany)?
    If one does not accept that Fourth Century searchers were able to determine the truth, then the identity of sites and artifacts could not be established. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is based on this type of site determination.

  • Suburbanbanshee

    Actually, St. Helena primarily relied on questioning area Christians about where sites were. Visions, miracles, etc. were felt to be verification from on high that tradition was true; but they weren’t the actual determining factor. Tradition was.

    Now, when it comes to figuring out which of three crosses was the True Cross, that’s when you come to reliance on miracles for making a determination. (Although it was pretty darned Science! the way they did it, in ancient-world terms.)

  • Dave

    Some decades ago a Cleveland area Catholic priest declared war on Santa Claus. He got a guest column slot in the Plain Dealer to lay out his view that Santa Clause had no part in the Christmas story. Ironically, the PD cartoonist provided a drawing of Santa making a quick exit from the stable. But in the background was a camel. That, too, was an intrusion; there are no camels in the Nativity narrative. Everyone has his/her own Creche makeup, it seems.

  • Julia

    I’ve always heard that it was like the Banshee says. Helena made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and asked around. Like today, people will say Washington slept here or Lincoln visited that town and stayed in that hotel. Christianity had just recently become legal, so there probably weren’t any shrines erected yet that would be visible to the authorities. But surely the local Christians had passed down their recollections of important places and things. My town in S. IL knows exactly where Lincoln stood on a balconey to address the locals. The house is long gone, but the wrought iron balconey is still kept in storage somewhere. We still have “relics”; we just don’t call them that any more. I saw a lot of “relics” in Cooperstown as few years back – clothing and baseball equipment that famous people wore or used.
    They were spoken of in the same hushed tones that I imagine pilgrims used. AND there’s a huge statue of Stan Musial in front of Cardinal Stadium in St Louis.

  • Julia

    The camels were the supposed method of transport for the Magi, who actually came to visit much later.
    My Nativity set from Italy has Magi and camels, as well as a shepherf with his sheep.

    Loved the Mr Bean video.

  • Julia

    One more comment – on this line: “imagery that owes less, perhaps, to historical accuracy than to artists”

    That’s also true concerning Mary Magdalene. The proverbial “fallen woman” is such a juicy subject for artists who are not theologians or priests, but probably more influential for most of Christianity’s history of mainly illiterate congregations until the 17-1800s. Judith holding Holophernes’ severed head is another great subject they couldn’t resist.

  • MJBubba

    I liked the article. One sentence, though, made me choke: “Luke made Christ’s vulnerability even more stark by placing Mary and Joseph in a stable.”
    This makes it sound like Luke was the author of fiction and made up the parts about the stable. Tim Townsend may disbelieve the holy nativity, but it distracts from the greater point of his article about artistic influences in the pop culture narratives about the nativity.

  • MJBubba

    Regarding Pope Benedict XVI’s remarks about the animals. Well, we don’t know. All we know is that it was a stable. Maybe the animals had been moved out to make room for the overflow from the inn, and maybe not. Benedict is only pointing this out.
    Regarding the idea that the stable was in a cave, I have seen travelog photos of ancient shelters carved into the base of rock bluffs near Bethlehem, put forward as possible models. It is impossible to know what the place originally looked like, but the traditional site is now in the basement of the Church of the Nativity, and not near any bluff.

  • MJBubba

    Regarding camels: If the wise men came from a long way off to the east, they likely did use camels for the first part of their journey. However it is highly unlikely that they would have traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem with camels.