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Anna Ingram 10 November 2022
min Read25 December 2022
Let’s forget the traditional Nativity scene that we all know for a moment: Virgin Mary kneeling before baby Christ, Joseph standing right behind her, angels surrounding them, ox and ass watching over the baby. I want to present to you the forgotten medieval iconography of the Nativity. I promise it will blow your mind!
So ladies and (most importantly) gentlemen – let’s have a look at the Holy Family and follow the example of Saint Joseph.
This might come as a shock to you but in old medieval artworks (dating back to the 13th century) we can witness Saint Joseph taking an active role in the Nativity. Later on, this motif will be forgotten in iconography and we will slowly observe that the old man is sitting passively and turning away from the scene (just like in the Proto-Renaissance fresco painted by Giotto).
The Virgin Mary needs a rest, that’s obvious! So who will take care of the baby? Joseph, it is.
Nativity, miniature from a Latin manuscript of the Abbey of Notre-Dame des Pres (f.23), 13th century, Bibliotheque Municipale De Valenciennes, Valenciennes, France.
Nativity, miniature from French Book of Hours, c. 1400. Twitter.
Was Joseph a good cook? I guess that we will never know, but he seems to be very dedicated to cooking porridge.
Konrad von Soest, Nativity, 1403, Saint Nikolaus parish church, Bad Wildungen, Germany.
Workshop of the Bedford Master, The Holy Family, miniature from Book of Hours, c. 1440–1450, MS. Ludwig IX 6 (83.ML.102), f. 181, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA, USA.
Nativity, between 1405 and 1414, Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, Netherlands.
Nativity, miniature from Flemish Book of Hours, 15th century, Oxford University College MS 5, Oxford, UK.
Mary needs some time for herself, so once again, the caring Joseph steps in. Although in the second image from another Book of Hours, the donkey seems to be a better source of amusement for Jesus than Saint Joseph…
The Nativity, from Besançon Book of Hours, 15th century, Fitzwilliam MS 69, f. 48r, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK.
Nativity with Ox and Ass, from a French Book of Hours, 1400–1425: Harley MS 2952, f. 142v, The British Library, London, UK.
In this high gothic altarpiece, we can see another fascinating scene from the Nativity; Saint Joseph is helping midwife Salome to prepare a bath for baby Jesus.
The motif of the holy child’s first bath is derived from Byzantine iconography of Nativity and it became a part of Western iconography in the 14th century.
Everyone knows that a good swaddle is an absolute must-have! People in the Middle Ages knew that too; according to the antique tradition, it was believed that the baby needed to be swaddled tightly in order not to develop deformed limbs.
The Holy Family couldn’t afford swaddling robes, so here we see Saint Joseph taking off his shoes and offering his stockings (or hosen) as swaddle clothes.
Joseph Malouel (attributed), Nativity, c. 1400, Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, Belgium.
French School, Nativity, fragment of the rood-screen, 13th century, Chartres Cathedral, Chartres, France.
I absolutely adore this painting. The handy carpenter is giving Jesus pears, while Mary is resting in bed and eating (maybe a famous porridge made by Joseph?)
You wonder; how’s it possible that a newborn walks? It’s a holy child.
BTW. Did you notice the Byzantine motif of the child’s first bath mentioned earlier?
Medieval art is full of surprises! I hope that you’ve enjoyed this selection of slightly forgotten iconography of the Nativity.
May humble and caring Joseph be your inspiration this Christmas season!
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