The Nativity
Early images

 Location: and the midwives.

Early images of the Birth of Christ reflect apocryphal texts and traditional storytelling. The most obvious difference between early and late images is the setting. The tradition, expressed in the Protoevangelium of James, was that Jesus was born in a cave, a location that has  many mythological parallels. 

And they came into the middle of the road, and Mary said to him: Take me down from off the ass, for that which is in me presses to come forth. And he took her down from off the ass, and said to her: Whither shall I lead you, and cover your disgrace? For the place is desert.  

And he found a cave there, and led her into it; and leaving his two sons beside her, he went out to seek a midwife in the district of Bethlehem. 
                                                                                                                                                                                                                (Ch. 17 - 18)

The midwife, and Salome, now appear on the scene and the story of Salome's scepticism unfolds. In certain respects it mirrors the story of Doubting Thomas. 
   In the more elaborate Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew the midwife is named as Zelomi, and Salome is another midwife rather than just a passer-by. The  Pseudo-Matthew text is here

In a strange twist,  at this point the Protoevangelium text temporarily adopts the first person: an aside by Joseph is discussed at the bottom of the page.  

19. And I saw a woman coming down from the hill-country, and she said to me: O man, whither are you going? And I said: I am seeking an Hebrew midwife. And she answered and said unto me: Are you of Israel? And I said to her: Yes. And she said: And who is it that is bringing forth in the cave? And I said: A woman betrothed to me. And she said to me: Is she not your wife? And I said to her: It is Mary that was reared in the temple of the Lord, and I obtained her by lot as my wife. And yet she is not my wife, but has conceived of the Holy Spirit.  

And the midwife said to him: Is this true? And Joseph said to her: Come and see. And the midwife went away with him. And they stood in the place of the cave, and behold a luminous cloud overshadowed the cave. And the midwife said: My soul has been magnified this day, because my eyes have seen strange things— because salvation has been brought forth to Israel. And immediately the cloud disappeared out of the cave, and a great light shone in the cave, so that the eyes could not bear it. And in a little that light gradually decreased, until the infant appeared, and went and took the breast from His mother Mary. And the midwife cried out, and said: This is a great day to me, because I have seen this strange sight. And the midwife went forth out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to you: a virgin has brought forth— a thing which her nature admits not of. Then said Salome: As the Lord my God lives, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth.  

20. And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show yourself; for no small controversy has arisen about you. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire. And she bent her knees before the Lord, saying: O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; do not make a show of me to the sons of Israel, but restore me to the poor; for You know, O Lord, that in Your name I have performed my services, and that I have received my reward at Your hand. And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by her, saying to her: Salome, Salome, the Lord has heard you. Put your hand to the infant, and carry it, and you will have safety and joy. And Salome went and carried it, saying: I will worship Him, because a great King has been born to Israel. And, behold, Salome was immediately cured, and she went forth out of the cave justified. And behold a voice saying: Salome, Salome, tell not the strange things you have seen, until the child has come into Jerusalem.  

  Zelomi and Salome often appear in early versions of the nativity, as in the panel by Guido of Siena. In the versions by Pietro da Rimini and Robert Campin, Salome holds out her mended hand. 

Guido da Siena
Louvre, Paris

Pietro Cavallini 
Mosaic,Santa Maria in Trastevere, Rome

Pietro da Rimini
Musée Fabre, Montpellier

Robert Campin 
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon

The Ox and the Ass
  It is often assumed that the reference to a manger in Luke's gospel was the inspiration for the ox and the ass. Not so; the idea comes from the Pseudo-gospel of Matthew:

And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib. 

  The full quote from Isaiah (Chapter 1 v 3) is The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider. Geza Vermes in The Nativity suggests that this reference was regarded by the church as a prefiguration of the rejection of Christ by the Jewish people. He also reminds us of the tradition that the ox represented the Jews, and the ass the gentiles. 

  The Golden Legend tells us that Joseph and Mary brought the ox and the ass with them from Nazareth. The ass makes sense as a means of transport, by why an ox? Rather lamely, The Golden Legend suggests Joseph might have intended to sell it. 

The sleeping Joseph
  Joseph is often shown asleep. It might be thought that he is simply tired out after the long journey from Nazareth. More likely, I think, is that Joseph is having his dream - the warning of the massacre of the innocents and the need to flee to Egypt. 

Fra Angelico
Convento di San Marco, Florence


The legend of Joseph's socks.
  I promise I'm not making this one up!
  A legend with very obscure origins!  Mary and Joseph, being poor, could not afford swaddling clothes. So  Joseph cut up his socks (or hose, if you prefer) for this purpose. These items are now a much revered relic in the cathedral at Aachen. This painting by an unknown German master illustrates the legend. 

Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp

  Finally, to return to the Protoevangelium, and to Chapter 18, in which Joseph speaks in the first person of the actual moment of birth. It is a most extraordinary text, and has never, to my knowledge, been illustrated.  But then, motionlessness is not the easiest idea to illustrate in art.
    And I Joseph was walking, and was not walking; and I looked up into the sky, and saw the sky astonished; and I looked up to the pole of the heavens, and saw it standing, and the birds of the air keeping still. And I looked down upon the earth, and saw a trough lying, and work-people reclining: and their hands were in the trough. And those that were eating did not eat, and those that were rising did not carry it up, and those that were conveying anything to their mouths did not convey it; but the faces of all were looking upwards. And I saw the sheep walking, and the sheep stood still; and the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, and his hand remained up. And I looked upon the current of the river, and I saw the mouths of the kids resting on the water and not drinking, and all things in a moment were driven from their course.

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