Skip to main content

Nativity Motifs in Art, Origin

Origin of Nativity Motifs in Art

– Answered by Father Johann Roten, S.M.

Q: Where do the many Nativity motifs--Cave, Ox and Ass, and many more--come from?

A: Have you ever seen a representation of the Nativity with two ladies giving the Christ Child a bath? If you read your Bible, you will find that neither Matthew nor Luke report about the incident. The motif of the bath is quite well known in paintings of Jesus' birth, and it conveys the conviction that he is truly human. Where does it come from? Difficult to say. At least we know where the two ladies come from. We even know one of their names: Salome, the friend of the midwife.

When asking about sources or origins of the Nativity, we are well advised to look with one eye to the Bible (the Infancy Narrations in Luke and Matthew), and with the other eye, to the so-called apocryphal writings. Among them are four I would like to mention: the Proto-Gospel of James (150-2--), where the midwife and her friend are mentioned; the Arabic Infancy Gospel (500); the Book about the Infancy of the Savior (500-800); and the Proto-Gospel of Matthew (550-700). The Proto-Gospel of James being the oldest, we find traces of it in the other three apocryphal writings, and all four of them have roots in the canonical gospels of Luke and Matthew. These "hidden" (apocryphal) writings were not included in the Bible as we know it, but they had a lasting influence on the religious imagination of early Christian generations and subsequent expressions of devotion and art. Here are some examples on how some of these writings have influenced the nativity tradition.

Cave or Stable?

The bible does not have an answer to this question. The cave is first mentioned in the Proto-Gospel of James (PGJ 18). According to the Pseudo-Gospel of Matthew, Mary moved from the cave to stable three days after giving birth to Jesus (PGM14). There she put the child in a manager (Lk 2,7).

Ox and Ass

Again, the Bible remains silent. It is the Pseudo-Matthew which tells us that, once in the manger in the stable, ox and ass worshipped the Lord Jesus Christ. The text quotes two Old Testament references regarding the two animals (Hab 3,2 LXX and Isaiah 1,3). Isaiah, in particular, has this to say: "The ox knows his owner and the ass his maker's crib."


Not mentioned in the Bible, the midwife plays an important role in the Christmas story. In short, she is important because she is not needed. The child is born before she arrives at the cave. In turn, she is a professional witness to the virgin birth. "And the midwife came out of the cave, and Salome met her. And she said to her: 'Salome, Salome, I have a new sight to tell you; a virgin has brought forth, a thing which her nature does not allow'." (PGJ 19.3)

The Light-Child

La tour, Caravaggio, and many other painters represented the baby Jesus as a child of light, frequently being the only source of light of their paintings. Here, again, the apocryphal Gospel of James explains: " And immediately the cloud disappeared from the cave, and a great light appeared (Isaiah 9.2), so that our eyes could not bear it.: (PGJ 19.2) The world of God illuminates the Word. Jesus Christ is compared to the rising sun.

Flight to Egypt

A very popular theme of the Christmas cycle, the flight to Egypt is permeated with episodes of religious symbolism, moving humanness, and prophetic gestures. Threatened by wild beasts, dragons, and lions as symbols of evil, the baby Jesus manifests divine power: "Have no fear," he says to his parents, "and do not think that I am a child, for I have always been and even now am perfect; all wild beasts must be docile before me" (PGM 18). He not only overcomes evil, he also unmasks idolatry and literally provokes its collapse. "But it came to pass that, when blessed Mary entered the temple with the child (in this temple there were 365 idols!), all idols fell to the ground, so that they all lay on their faces completely overturned and shattered. Thus, they openely showed that they were nothing." (PGM 23) The encounter with the two robbers, Titus and Dumachus, became the occasion for an important prophecy. The baby said to his mother: "In thirty years, Mother, the Jews will crucify me in Jerusalem, and those two robbers will be fastened to the cross with me, Titus on my right hand and Dumachus on my left, and after that day Titus will go before me into paradise." (Arabic Infancy Gospel, 23)

The baby shows great kindness to his mother, ordering the palm tree to bend down. The Pseudo-Gospel of Matthew said about the reaction of the palm tree: "And immediately at his command, the palm bent its head down to the feet of blessed Mary, and they gathered from its fruit with which they all refreshed themselves." (PGM, 20.2)

More episodes and motifs could be mentioned. Legendary as may be, they are mostly popular illustrations of both Jesus' humanity and divinity, which are pillars of the Christmas mystery.

All About Mary includes a variety of content, much of which reflects the expertise, interpretations and opinions of the individual authors and not necessarily of the Marian Library or the University of Dayton. Please share feedback or suggestions with


Marian Library

Roesch Library
300 College Park
Dayton, Ohio 45469 - 1390

Study Mary

Study the theology and history of Mary at the University of Dayton.

Learn More

Keyword Search

Would you like to begin a new keyword search?

Get Started