Until the late 14th century the most important influence on the iconography of the Nativity was the belief that it fulfilled prophecies in the Old Testament.1 Duccio's Nativity, for example, is one of many that add portraits of prophets bearing scrolls with what were presumed to be their prophecies of Christ's birth.
In the earliest known Nativity the prophet Balaam points to a star above the Virgin Mary, who is nursing the child. This image refers to Balaam's prophecy in Numbers 24:17 that "a star shall rise out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring out of Israel."
It was further believed that the star of Balaam's prophecy was the one that led the Magi of Matthew 2 to the child, so in the 4th century these men are often pictured in a line approaching Mary, who sits on a throne with the child on her lap:
A detail of the so-called Sarcophagus of Stilicho, 3rd century. See the description page for details.
Wall painting in the Catacomb of Priscilla, Rome: Balaam on the left points to a star above Mary and the baby. (See the description .)
Fourth century: Sarcophagus fragment with Mary, the baby in the manger, and the ass munching at the manger.
330-335: A relief on the Sarcophagus of Marcus Claudianus: the ox and ass inside with the child, the shepherd outside in contemplation.
Fifth century: In this ivory plaque St. Joseph wears just a working man's tunic and holds a saw emblematic of his trade. He and Mary sit left and right of the manger.
First quarter of the 13th century: A highly stylized enamel with a seated Joseph and recumbent mother and child. The Metropolitan Museum has a similar enamel from 1165 with the figures disposed in the same way (accession number 17.190.418).
Mid-13th century: In a manuscript illumination Mary's arm crosses the space that had traditionally separated her from the child in the manger.
1463: In Filippo Lippi's Adoration of the Christ Child the usual details of a Brigittine Nativity are replaced by an imaginary setting in which the child's divinity is announced by the Father, Holy Spirit, and John the Baptist.
1474: A fresco in Croatia using details from Bridget's vision and some from the earlier tradition.
1475-80: Botticelli's Nativity has the Brigittine kneeling Mary and glowing child, but also kneeling is a child John the Baptist already in a camel skin.
Third quarter of the 11th century: Ivory reliquary with the shepherds giving gifts to the child, a topic seen from time to time throughout the Middle Ages. As in the images on the 4th-century sarcophagi and the early catacomb painting, Mary is seated.
14th century (?): A relief of the Adoration of the Shepherds, with only two shepherds?
1476-78: Hugo van der Goes's triptych, The Adoration of the Shepherds adds the Portinari family and their patron saints to an already well-attended Nativity scene.
1488-90: Pinturicchio's Nativity is one of many examples in which the three shepherds represent the three ages of man.
1 See the Glossa Ordinaria, I, 1360-62. In the Tridentine masses for Christmas the introits and communion verses were all taken from texts of Isaiah and the Psalms thought to be predictive of the Nativity. See the Missale Romanum, 16-20. And the Mirror of Human Salvation (32-33, chapter 8) cites a number of presumed prophecies from those two sources. In dramatic works a succession of prophets would step forward and tell their prophecy as a prelude to the Nativity or the Annunciation. See the Benediktbeuern Nativity (Bevington, 180-201), the Annunciation play in the Towneley Cycle, and the Nativity play in the Chester Cycle.
2 Luke 2:7,12,16. Mâle (185) quotes the Glossa Ordinaria on Luke 2:7 as saying, "She put him in a manger, that is, the body of Christ on the altar." I have not found this comment in either the Lollard Society's online copy of the Glossa or in Migne's edition, but see for example Gregory the Great's homily on Luke 2, which says, "Thus he is born and lies in a manger, so that all the faithful (that is, the holy animals) may be refreshed by the grain that is his flesh" (Migne, Pat. Lat. LXXVI, 1104). Honorius (Speculum Ecclesiae, 818): "The ass, (interpreted as the Gentiles) and the ox (interpreted as the Jews) are led by faith to eat the body of Christ." Similarly, see pseudo-Bede (Migne XCII, 331) "He who is the bread of angels lay in the manger so he could nourish us as holy animals with the fodder of his flesh". (All translations mine.) See especially Leah Marcus on the influence of these interpretations on medieval art and the English cycle plays.
4 The Book of the Infancy of the Savior goes by a variety of names in the scholarly literature. It can be consulted in M. L. James, Latin Infancy Gospels, where sections 62-75 cover the Nativity. Bradley's online commentary includes a partial translation into English, and Santos Otero translates the Nativity and Magi sections into Spanish in Los Evangelios Apócrifos, 110-117. Santos Otero suggests a date in the 9th century. Its principal source is the Gospel of Pseudo Matthew, which has been dated anywhere from the 5th to the 9th century; but James (xxiv-xxv) posits an additional source dating to the 2nd century on the basis of the book's apparently
"Docetism" holds that the Christ was a spiritual being who only appeared to be a physical presence.
passages, especially the midwife's statement that a light descended from Heaven, formed itself into the shape of a child, and entered Mary, who then gave birth. Also suspiciously docetic is the child's apparent weightlessness when the midwife holds him in her arms. And her detailed insistence that the birth did not impair Mary's virginity, although consistent with orthodox teaching, could nevertheless have arisen from a docetic belief that what seemed a physical parturition was only an illusion.
5Deimling, I, 138-39. Bevington, 380; and compare the song of the Towneley shepherds that precedes the Mak episode, ibid., 390.