The Life of Jesus Christ, and the Art He Inspired: The Nativity
The Mystical Nativity by Sandro Botticelli
O Come Emmanuel - Instrumental with Scenes from the Life of Jesus
Chapter Five: Shepherds and Wise Men Alike Adore Him
The gorgeous painting above by Sandro Botticelli is one of my favorite renderings of the Nativity. The Christ is born, and while the Holy Family prays in intense, complete adoration, the angels of heaven are having a party! There are hugs for the shepherds who have come to see the child. Even the kicking baby seems to be having a good time. The atmosphere is joyous, excited, and just a bit pristine. You just know that the cow behind Jesus would never dream of drooling on his Holy manger-mate!
I think it's safe to say that the real manger scene was probably quite a bit more humble than Botticelli's vision, and that's important. This image from the Franciscan Herald Press may be a bit closer. One of the striking things to note about the visitations recorded at the Inn is that neither set of well-wishers fits into the traditional categories you might expect for somebody seeking the Messiah of Israel. The shepherds are lowly, downtrodden folk with few possessions. The magi are outsiders, and practitioners of an art forbidden by Jewish law. Their presence during Jesus' early infancy is a sign of things to come; the meek shall be exalted, and the outsiders will become inheritors of the Messiah's new kingdom.
Adoration of the Shepherds by Guido Reni
Luke 2: 8 - 20
8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you: Ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!”
15 And it came to pass, when the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, “Let us now go even unto Bethlehem and see this thing which has come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.”
16 And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.
17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this Child.
18 And all those who heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
19 But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.
20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.
L'ange et les bergers (The Angel and the Shepherds) by James Tissot
The Shepherds and the Angel by Carl Bloch
Meditation: The Lowly are Invited to Meet the King
In the above picture by Guido Reni, the shepherds have arrived at the manger and are joyfully offering what gifts they can provide. One woman appears to have a basket of bread. A child holds on tight to his lamb, and two of the shepherds are attempting to entertain the Holy Family with music on the pipes. It's a joyful picture, but another work by James Tissot captures more perfectly an aspect of this event that's a little bit less celebrated. When the angel appears to Tissot's shepherds, they are terrified. The trees behind them are twisted in sinister patterns that reflect their turmoil, and they same to be holding up their hands to defend themselves against the bright light that dazzles them.
We must remember that the shepherds of Israel during this time may very well have been illiterate, and they were certainly people of little importance in their society. Israel was oppressed by the Romans, and these folk today would be categorized as the working poor. They are not scholars of the law. They do not have any place of importance in the synagogue. Why is it that they, rather than the chief priests, are the people to whom the first invitation is given to see the Messiah born?
Some thirty years from now, Jesus will say to His followers, "Blessed are the Meek, for they will inherit the earth." Mary said in her song of praise to God, "He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich He hath sent empty away." The shepherds are chosen because Jesus is the Good Shepherd, and he comes to bring his lost children home to their heavenly Father. The Shepherds are invited because they are the poor in spirit. Theirs is the kingdom of God.
So what of the wise men from the east?
St. Albans Psalter, The Three Magi Following the Star
Matthew 2: 1 - 12
1. Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem,
2 saying, “Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”
3 When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5 And they said unto him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:
6 ‘And thou, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah; for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule My people Israel.’”
7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, inquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search diligently for the young child, and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.”
9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and lo, the star which they saw in the East went before them until it came and stood over where the young Child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto Him gifts: gold and frankincense and myrrh.
12 And being warned by God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Three Wise Men going to Bethlehem by Franz Xaver Merz
The Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano
Meditation: The Gentiles Become Inheritors of the Kingdom of God
And there came wise men from the east... what a great contrast they are to the shepherds that proceeded them! Look at how much more opulently they are dressed, how much more erudite their manner!
Traditionally the visiting astrologers are commonly referred to as kings, but that is not quite accurate. They were not monarchs, but magicians. Their occupation was to foretell the future by looking at the constellations in the sky. They came from lands across the Israelite border because they saw some kind of unusual celestial activity and they believed that it heralded the Jewish Messiah. We must remember that these are much less likely admirers than the peasants who proceeded them. The magic and soothsaying they practiced was forbidden by Jewish law. Since the time of Abraham, Jewish wisdom and law had stated clearly that the Jews were God's own chosen people, and they had divine favor not enjoyed by the peoples of any other nation. The arrival of the Magi at the feet of Jesus heralds a new era. God has come to save the Gentiles as well as the Jews, and all humanity will be as one as they kneel to adore Him.
The Magi brought three gifts. Gold designated Jesus' place as King of Kings. Frankincense anointed Him as the Chief Priest for all humankind, and Myrhh foretold His death as a perfect sacrifice for the sins of the entire world. Because there are three gifts, it is traditional to depict three Magi, and some have even designated certain names for them: Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior. However, the Bible account does not specifically state that there were exactly three wise men, and we do not actually know their names for certain.
Illuminated manuscript, psalter. Annunciation to the shepherds (above) and the three Magi (below)
Thank you that You have found fit to make the Nativity of the Lord a portrait of Your love and inclusion of all peoples in the Kingdom of Heaven. All humans, from the lowly and illiterate shepherds to the wealthy and skilled Magi are welcome in Your sight. Help us to remember that You speak to people of all stations and nations, and not merely to people who resemble us most closely. Help us to see Your face in the faces of all those whom we encounter, regardless of their profession, race, creed or color.
Previous chapter in this Series
- The Illustrated Life of Jesus: The Trip to Bethlehem
Mary and Joseph had to travel over 100 miles by donkey to register for the census required by Rome. What was their trip like, and what can we learn from viewing their struggles?
Next Chapter in this Series: The Song of Simeon
- The Illustrated Life of Jesus Christ: The Song of Simeon
Jewish elder Simeon sings a song of thanksgiving to God in the temple when Jesus is presented to the Lord. With artwork by Cornelis de Vos, James Tissot, and with art from Notre Dame and Hosios Loukas
Where it is located
The Mystical Nativity
Sandro Botticell, 1500-1501
National Gallery, London
Image from the Franciscan Herald
Franciscan Herald, 1914
Third Order Secular of St. Francis
Adoration of the Shepherds
Guido Reni, 1640
National Gallery, London
L'ange et les Bergers
James Tissot, around 1894
The Brooklyn Museum
The Shepherds and the Angel
Carl Bloch, 1879
Frederiksborg Slot (Denmark - Hillerod)
The Three Magi Following the Star
St. Albans Psalter, 1140
Three Wise Men Going to Bethlehem
Franz Xaver Merz, 1755
Fresco at Windberg Abbey Church in lower Bavaria
The Adoration of the Magi
Gentile da Fabriano, 1423
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Three Magi
Saint Louis Psalter, 1190-1200