In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus
that the whole world should be enrolled.
This was the first enrollment, 
when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
So all went to be enrolled, each to his own town.
And Joseph too went up from Galilee from the town of Nazareth 
to Judea, to the city of David that is called Bethlehem, 
because he was of the house and family of David, 
to be enrolled with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.
While they were there,
the time came for her to have her child, 
and she gave birth to her firstborn son.
She wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, 
because there was no room for them in the inn.

Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields 
and keeping the night watch over their flock.
The angel of the Lord appeared to them 
and the glory of the Lord shone around them, 
and they were struck with great fear.
The angel said to them,
“Do not be afraid;
for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy 
that will be for all the people.
For today in the city of David 
a savior has been born for you who is Christ and Lord.
And this will be a sign for you: 
you will find an infant wrapped in swaddling clothes 
and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel,
praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Luke 2:1-14

Nativity, Giotto Di Bondone, 1305, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy

Nativity, Giotto Di Bondone, 1305, Scrovegni (Arena) Chapel, Padua, Italy

The art of Giotto Di Bondone lies between the flat Byzantine medieval style and the revolutionary art of the Renaissance and he is often called the Father of Renaissance art. He boldly experimented with naturalism, modeling, and perspective; he painted blue skies instead of gold and used other color more freely; he included naturalistic scenery; and he used shading to indicate volume. Perhaps most importantly, Giotto often showed the intense emotions of the moment in the faces he painted.

Giotto painted a scene of the Nativity in the Scrovegni Chapel, also known as the Arena Chapel, in Padua, in a fresco cycle regarded as his masterpiece. The layout in this scene is similar to Byzantine icons of the nativity but the artist has given it his own charm. We see the Holy Family within a lean-to set against a rocky hillside, with Mary, lying on a makeshift bed on a rock ledge, being handed the swaddled infant Jesus by an attendant. We are immediately drawn to the gaze shared between Mary and Jesus, as they stare intently at each other. Joseph is often depicted as seen here, with his head on his hand as if weary from their long journey. An angel announces the birth to the shepherds at right, while more angels fly above, looking up to heaven with their hands held in praise.

Notice the flaking of the blue paint on Mary’s garment and the sky. The patron and owner of this chapel, Scrovegni, insisted that in some areas Giotto overpaint with blue to highlight the extravagance of the chapel, since the blue is a very costly pigment made of lapis lazuli. Unfortunately, though, the technique used, secco or dry fresco, rather than true fresco that bonds with the wet plaster, has led to the paint flaking away over time.

The ox and the ass shown at left are not included in the biblical text, but they are seen in our earliest depictions of the Nativity, such as this 4th century Roman sarcophagus from Milan.


Detail from the "Sarcofago di Stilicone" ("Stilicho's sarcophagus") ca 4th c., Sant'Ambrogio Basilica, Milan, Italy

Detail from the “Sarcofago di Stilicone” (“Stilicho’s sarcophagus”) ca 4th c., Sant’Ambrogio Basilica, Milan, Italy


Nativity, Giotto, 1311-20, fresco San Francesco, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy

Nativity, Giotto, 1311-20, fresco
San Francesco, Upper Church, Assisi, Italy

Giotto is thought by many scholars to have also painted the Nativity scene above for the fresco cycle in the church of Saint Francis in Assisi. We see three scenes side by side that are parts of a progressive narrative. The center foreground shows the newborn Jesus being swaddled after bathing while Joseph looks on from the left, weary or thoughtful. Mary lies on her makeshift bed holding the swaddled infant, upon whom golden beams of light come down from above. At the right, the angel announces the birth of the savior to shepherds, and we have the requisite animals in attendance. More angels above and below indicate that heaven has broken into the earthly realm to celebrate this miraculous event, the birth of God as man.

Though I was first inclined to attribute this work to Giotto, after studying it and comparing it with his Scrovegni Chapel paintings, I’ve come to agree with those who argue against a Giotto attribution. The figures lack the emotional intensity we see in the first Nativity scene; the angels are arrayed quite statically, with none of the lively variety of the other painting; the modeling and scenery seem rather flat. If this was actually painted by Giotto himself after the Arena Chapel, surely he would have developed and refined his technique even further. What do you think?

Regardless of artist, though, in both paintings there is that gaze between Mary and Jesus. In the Arena Chapel image, Mary is receiving her baby into her arms for the first time. How great must her awe have been, knowing that the mystery of God made flesh was there in her loving hands, held against her adoring breast!? Imagine the overwhelming love that swells in her heart as she sees him gazing back at her!

I invite you now to imagine yourself in this scene. Who are you?

  • Are you Mary, staring adoringly at the Savior of the world, this tiny and helpless babe in your arms?
  • Are you Joseph, weary and detached?
  • Are you a shepherd, just hearing the Good News and trying to grasp what it means?
  • Perhaps you’re an angel, proclaiming the Good News for all to hear!
  • Or are you the baby, being held, nursed, and gazed upon with love by your mother Mary?

Choose one and sit with it for a few minutes. Let the experience penetrate deeply so that you can relate to Jesus in a meaningful and personal way. Allow your heart and mind to become immersed in the overwhelming mystery of the Incarnation.

Glory to God in the highest! May there be peace on earth and goodwill among men.

Merry Christmas.

Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin Mary

The traditions of the birth and life of the Virgin Mary are derived from the Apocryphal Gospel known as the Protoevangelium of James, written about AD145. In the artworks presented on this page, we see the scene of Mary’s birth by her mother Anne. In the Catholic Church, the Feast of the birth or nativity of Mary is celebrated on September 8. This feast is exactly nine months after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8, which commemorates the teaching that Mary was conceived without the stain of original sin, though in the normal biological manner.

Birth of the Virgin, Giotto di Bondone, 1304-1306, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy

Birth of the Virgin, Giotto di Bondone, 1304-1306, Arena Chapel, Padua, Italy

Giotto di Bondone painted a series of frescoes in the Arena Chapel at Padua, Italy that are considered among the world’s greatest masterpieces. Giotto was among the first artists to break away from the flat, static style of Byzantine and medieval painting  to create innovative works with realistic settings that are early attempts at spatial perspective. This makes him the father of Renaissance art. In this image of the birth of Mary, we can see how he has used an architectural structure to create the illusion of three dimensional space. The heavenly golden background of Byzantine works has been replaced with a blue that suggests the actual sky. The figures show an attempt at modeling and roundness, and especially in the women sitting in the foreground, we can see that there are bodies beneath the clothing. Giotto shows us at least two separate moments from the story, since we see the haloed infant Mary being handed to her mother Anne and also being cared for by the women in the foreground.


Nativity of Mary by the Master of the Life of the Virgin, circa 1460, Munich

Nativity of Mary by the Master of the Life of the Virgin, circa 1460, Munich

The Master of the Life of the Virgin, whose identity is disputed, painted a series of eight scenes from the life of Mary including this nativity setting. In it, we see a large bed bedecked with a red coverlet and set beneath an elaborate woven canopy. The newborn infant Mary is being handed to her mother Anne by the attending women. This Northern Renaissance painting shows the brilliant colors, attention to fabrics and surfaces, and delicacy of the figures that we would expect. It also seems to show the influence of the northern masters, Rogier Van der Weyden and Deiric Bouts.


Life of the Virgin: 4. The Birth of the Virgin, Albrecht Dürer, 1503 Woodcut, Munich

Life of the Virgin: 4. The Birth of the Virgin, Albrecht Dürer, 1503
Woodcut, Munich

The German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer created a series of 20 woodcuts depicting the Life of the Virgin, which he published in 1511 in book form with poetry by the Benedictine monk Benedictus Chelidonius. We look into the scene of Mary’s birth through an archway, seen at the top of the image. An angel above swings an incense censor, letting us know that we are viewing the sacred. But the crowded scene below seems anything but sacred, and we have to search for the infant Mary and attempt to make some sense of the disorder. St. Anne lays in the bed exhausted from her labor as the attendants offer her food and beverage. The gaggle of woman are all involved in some sort of task that attends midwifery or the relaxation afterwards, and after a search we can see Mary being bathed in the right foreground. This scene is homely and ordinary, and only the angel above lets us know that heaven is breaking into earth.


Birth of the Virgin 1661, Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Louvre, Paris

Birth of the Virgin by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1661, Louvre, Paris

Murillo, the last of the great painters of Spain’s Golden Age, depicts the religious scene with great tenderness. The baroque treatment in this work shows the influence of the Flemish school and Velázquez on Murillo after his trip to Madrid, a turning point in his career.


The birth of Mary is a day of hope and joy that reminds us of the nativity of Jesus. It is through this infant girl that our salvation will be born.

Hail Mary, full of grace.
The Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.