The Nativity of Christ is described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (Matthew 1: 18-25, 2: 1-12; Luke 2: 1-10). While the canonic Gospels were used as the main source for the depictions of the New Testament episode, many icons were based on the apocryphal Protoevangelion of James.

The main iconographic composition of the Nativity of Christ (the swaddled Infant Christ in a manger inside a cave, the animals worshipping the Child, the Theotokos lying on a couch and the sitting Joseph) in various depictions of this scene was complemented with the images of the angels glorifying the Lord, the shepherds being told the good news of Christ’s birth, the Pilgrimage and the Worshipping of the Magi and the Washing of the Child. The manger is shown with two animals standing nearby – the ox and ass – symbolizing the fulfillment of the Prophet Isaiah’s prophecy “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider” (Isaiah 1:3). The essential elements of the composition are the cave and the Bethlehem star that led the Magi to Christ. The subject of Christ’s passion in the depictions of the Nativity is present in the scene of the Magi worshipping Christ. They gave the Child gifts of gold as a king, frankincense as God and myrrh that was used to anoint dead bodies before burial.

Scholars are divided over the enigmatic figure of an old man dressed in animal skins speaking to Joseph. N.V.Pokrovsky suggested it may be one of the shepherds who came to worship Christ. There is also an opinion that he is Joseph’s son who accompanied the Holy Family to Bethlehem. But he couldn’t be depicted as an old man as he was a young man who was shown beardless in other depictions. According to a different version, supported by E.Lukovnkova, the old man in animal skins is Devil who is tempting Joseph not to believe in the virginity of the Theotokos. The old man is often shown with a stick, with a hat on his head. Some rare depictions show him talking to the Holy Virgin rather than with Joseph (e.g. a tablet icon from the Sergiev-Posad Museum).

The earliest depictions of the Nativity of Christ date back to the 4th – 6th centuries (St. Sebastian catacombs in Rome, the sarcophagus from the Lateran Museum, the cover of the Milan Gospel, 6th c.) The iconography of the Nativity of Christ had developed by the 7th century. On Russian icons, the Nativity scenes, as early as the 11th – 12th centuries, were almost always represented in an extended version, which included not on the worshipping of the Magi, but also their following the sun (the murals of the St. Anthony Monastery in Novgorod, a cathedral of the Mirozhsky Convent in Pskov, the Church of Boris in Gleb in Kideksha in Kiev’s St. Cyrill Church (all dating to the 12th century).

Zhanna G. Belik,

Ph.D. in Art history, senior research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum, custodian of the tempera painting collection.

Olga E. Savchenko,

research fellow at the Andrei Rublyov Museum.