Divine Love: The Art of the Nativity

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams

Alexander Adams is an artist, critic and poet, based in the UK. He writes art criticism for The Critic, Standpoint, Apollo, Burlington Magazine, Print Quarterly, Printmaking Today, The Jackdaw and other publications. He publishes articles on censorship and free speech, as well as book reviews, on Spiked-Online.

[Image: Gentile da Fabriano, Nativity scene
in the predella of The Adoration of
the Magi Altarpiece
(c. 1423), originally
in the Strozzi family chapel in Santa
Trinità, Florence, tempera on panel,
25 x 62 cm, Uffizi, Florence]

Divine Love: The Art of the Nativity studies narratives of the Nativity of Christ, following the development of the symbolism of pictorial art of (principally) the Renaissance. This is the follow-up book to the author Sarah Drummond’s previous book Divine Conception. A complex iconography accreted over centuries, differing between regions, that were essentially local oral traditions. The sculpture, paintings, mosaics, illuminated manuscripts and craft of the pre-16th century is evidence of these tales, often hard to untangle without specific accessible written records. The author has consulted widely to trace the iconography of the Nativity in art of Europe, principally northern Italy, Germany and the Low Countries. It starts in the Roman period and ends in 1566 with Bruegel.

The book is divided into chapters on Joseph, Mary, the Magi, ox and ass, cave, manger, midwives, shepherds, Birgitta’s vision and Joseph’s dream. While most of these are familiar, some are less so. (For example, who knows that in some traditions there were twelve Magi?) Birgitta’s vision was experienced by St Birgitta (Bridget) on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem in 1373. She would go on to found an order and her description of the birth of Christ and his placement on the ground “presented a revolutionary way to reflect on the scene. With astonishing speed artists all over Christian Europe were soon depicting this new iconography.”

Drummond notes how descriptions of the Nativity in the Gospels is sparse, especially about the journey to Bethlehem, and how folklore filled in the gap with details that appeared in art work. The ox and ass are entirely apocryphal, not appearing in the Gospels at all, though they are first depicted in the Nativity in the Late Roman era. Perhaps the ox was a lingering reference to the Mithraic cult of bull sacrifice. When St Francis of Assisi celebrated Christmas in 1223 with an ass and ox in a church, it became a sensation, inspiring deeper devotion among the congregants. The fame was spread by St Bonaventure’s account and only underlined the centrality of these humble beasts of burden to the Nativity.

Likewise, the image of a shepherd goes back to kriophoros – the Greek figure of the shepherd carrying a ram on his shoulders. Drummond tells us that the cult of Mary began in 431, when the Council of Ephesus declared Mary theotokos, God-bearing. Joseph has always been a difficult figure for theologians, keen to portray him as incapable of fathering Christ, attentive yet unobtrusive. “In icons of the Orthodox tradition Joseph is always depicted apart, sitting in a pose that indicates thoughtfulness, mistrust, incertitude, doubt. His body is bent over as he muses on his sorrows and difficulties; he carries the weight of insecurity and anxiety.”

The cave is sometimes an alternative setting for the Nativity, in preference to the stable, often incorporating Roman ruins. This is something that is supported by the local topography, which has many caves, hollows and grottoes. These were used as stores and stables, so such an association is feasible. The cave was associated with thresholds to other realms and the abodes of prophets and sibyls. Drummond thinks that the later domination of the built stable in Nativities was the result of a drive to make the scene relatable for Northern Europeans. The forms of mangers vary greatly, generally related to familiar forms of the regions where the image makers lived.

[Image: Giotto, fresco of the
Nativity in the Arena Chapel,
(c. 1305)]

The story of the midwives who came at Joseph’s behest to assist Mary came from the Apocrypha, namely the Protoevangelium Jacobi (c. 150). These women of Bethlehem witnessed miracles and were the first people to experience divine enlightenment. We can imagine that such an example offered an example of servitude of women that was uniquely feminine and allowed worshippers before these images to consider the birth of Christ in terms familiar from their daily life.   

The author knows her topic well and gives us illuminating quotes from ancient sources. The footnotes and bibliography will assist some researchers, but this is not a scholarly book. The selection of art is satisfyingly broad and frequently unexpected. Some illustrations are complex whole compositions but reproduced too small. In these cases, details would have been more suitable.

This would make a good Christmas gift for those engaged by the iconography of art. This review will be reposted before Christmas 2022 to remind people of the book.

Sarah Drummond, Divine Love: The Art of the Nativity, Unicorn Press, London, November 2021, hardback cloth spine, 132pp, fully col. Illus., £25, ISBN 978 1 913 491 86 4

© 2022 Alexander Adams

To see my books and art visit www.alexanderadams.art