THE birth of Christ is at the heart of the Christian mystery. The Second Person of the Trinity appears on earth, born of the Virgin Mary, of God the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit, born to redeem humanity. From an early age, we recognize the images of the manger: the newborn baby Jesus in a manger, Mary, Joseph, the ox and the donkey, the shepherds, the Magi, the angels, the star.
We know the scene so well that we risk not seeing it, wondering, questioning and reflecting. Blind to allegory and symbol (“because there was no room for them in the inn”), we renounce the sense of the sacred.
We forget that all cribs refer to rebirth in the spiritual sense, and that the function of religion is to reveal higher mysteries. The words of Saint Augustine echo: “What good is it for me that this birth always occurs, if it does not happen in me?”
From the start, the ox and the donkey are almost always present in the scenes of the Nativity of Christ. These accompanying beasts of burden, silent witnesses, appear as mythological adoptive parents. The first known images of the Nativity appear on 4th century sarcophagi.
In the pediment of the cover of one of them, we see the infant Jesus lying in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, watched by the ox and the donkey accompanying him. The sarcophagus is now incorporated into the pulpit of Sant’Ambrogio, in Milan.
Yet the ox and the donkey are not mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (the only two canonical Gospels to tell the story of the Nativity), although Luke (2.7) reports that Mary wrapped her son in swaddling clothes and “put him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” – and certainly a manger suggests animals.
Ancient images of the ox and the donkey watching over the manger of Christ are sometimes linked to a scene of the adoration of the Magi, who pay homage to the baby Jesus sitting on the knees of the Virgin.
The juxtaposition of the two events acts as a vibrant reminder that the feast of Epiphany – the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi – on January 6, originally encompassed the feast of the Nativity (moved to December 25 vs.350).
Giotto, frescoThe Nativity in the Chapel of the Arenas, Padua, around 1305. The Virgin leans tenderly towards the swaddled infant Jesus, concentrating all her attention on him. She is helped by a guide, perhaps a midwife; to the side, the shepherds are depicted, while Joseph sits aside, meditating
THE nativity scene itself appears in a variety of forms – box-shaped, or made of brick, wood, stone, or wattled basketry (evoking associations with the discovery of Moses). The ox and donkey can be depicted at either end of the manger, or standing together, or behind the manger in arched openings.
Maybe they represent our own animal instincts. They are there, sometimes breathing the heat, sometimes eating straw or hay, often watchful and vigilant: for example, in the fresco by Giotto in Assisi.
We are so used to seeing the ox and the donkey in the nativity scenes that we hardly ask ourselves: why are the ox and the donkey considered essential to the event? What is their significance? What is the origin of this iconography? Why were these beasts so deeply ingrained in the psyche of Christians from the start?
We know that at the time of the making of the sarcophagi, at the end of the Roman Empire, the Christian faithful – still very much in the minority – continued by inheritance to be imbued with both the tradition of the Old Testament of the Jews , and in Roman mythology and its practices and rituals.
Christians in the third and fourth centuries explored ways to express the mystery and meaning of their religious faith, seeking ways to convey the redemption of mankind brought about by the birth of the Savior.
The ox – often in the form of a bull – is an ancient symbol of sacrifice, a powerful beast, representing strength, considered sacred in many traditions, myths and cultures (Egyptian, Assyrian, Sumerian, Greek and others), and, in all probability, some of the rituals and practices continued to take place at the time of Christ’s birth.
The text of the prophet Isaiah contains many references to the awaited Messiah: “The ox knows his master, and the ass his master’s manger”, and continues: “But Israel did not know me, and my people did not know me. not understood ”(Isaiah 1.3).
As we read the Old and New Testaments in light of each other, Patristic commentators have noted references to the Messiah, the ox and the donkey, and reminded us that the Mosaic law states: “You shall not plow. with an ox and a donkey harnessed together. “
Exegesis explains the twinning of “pure” and “impure”. Symbolically, the union of extremes (represented by the animals of the nativity), the union of the spiritual and the bodily, the pure and the impure, the inside and the outside, and, finally, the uncreated and created, can only be accomplished through Christ, the incarnation and the logos in the person of Jesus Christ.
The ox and the donkey were associated with the words of the prophet Habakkuk in the Septuagint: “In the midst of two living beings, you will be recognized.
Gentile da Fabriano, nativity scene in the predella of the Altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi, 1423, originally in the Strozzi family chapel in Santa Trinità, Florence, tempera on panel, Uffizi, Florence. The Baby Jesus is lying on the ground surrounded by a mysterious light, in front of a cave where the ox and the donkey are represented looking with protection at the divine Child. Mary kneels beside the newborn, the midwives sit at the side, Joseph sleeps in the foreground, and in the background the shepherds see the angel
WE MAY wonder why the presence of a shepherd was considered essential to the manger of the baby Jesus. Why did 4th-century (and possibly earlier) Christians choose to include a shepherd in their search for images to evoke the mystery of the Nativity?
The figure of the Shepherd is deeply rooted in the human psyche and has appeared in images and legends from time immemorial in very different cultures and traditions.
Yet the shepherd archetype remains essentially the same, representing vigilance and care. Her job is to watch, round up, and care for the wandering and endangered sheep – a powerful allegory of our own messy, sometimes chaotic inner lives, overrun with wandering thoughts.
Calming the mind is considered an essential primary step in all traditions towards finding and maintaining a state of inner harmony.
For Christians, the image of the Shepherd inevitably connects us to the word of Christ “I am the good shepherd” (John 10:11), and with it the parable of the lost sheep. The gospels, like the Old Testament, are littered with references to shepherds and sheep. The good shepherd gives his life for his sheep (John 10:11); and Psalm 23 famously states, “The Lord is my Shepherd. I would not.
The lamb is an ancient symbol of sacrifice, as recalled by the 12th-century mosaics in the cathedral of Monreale, Sicily, depicting Noah and his family offering the sacrificial victim on the fire under the altar. David, Moses, Abraham, Jacob, and others have all been described as shepherds. But the Gospels also warn us against false shepherds (John 10: 1-5) who are only thieves and robbers, and to “beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but who are inwardly ravishing wolves” .
While in icons shepherds are depicted on the mountainside, in western images they are often depicted on a hill strewn with rocks. Both representations can be interpreted in the ancient language of allegory as at a higher level.
In the darkness of the winter solstice, the Light appears, and with it there is a welcome feeling of hope, of redemption. Sometimes we see the Shepherd with his hand raised – a gesture that can express joy, awe, or salvation.
We observe that the Shepherd is astonished: what he witnesses is beyond his comprehension, and yet he is irresistibly drawn to the Light, pointing steadfastly towards the sky while listening to the message of the angel and of the “heavenly host praising God” .
The shepherds respond instantly to this revelation, and together the companions follow the call, guided by the Light to the place of the nativity: to each other, let’s go now to Bethlehem, and see what happened, that the Lord has made known to us. And they came in haste, and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in a manger ”(Luke 2:16).
This annunciation event is also very often included in nativity scenes, although sometimes barely visible, taking place in the background or next to the image.
We are shown the arrival of the shepherds at the crib accompanied by sheep, and sometimes by a dog, presenting gifts (a lamb, flowers). We witness their rural simplicity and poverty in impoverished and worn out clothes. Humble, close to nature, close to the earth, close to instinct and animal life, all of this reminds us that folklore and ancient wisdom go hand in hand.
These are images and edited excerpts from Divine Love: The Art of the Nativity by Sarah Drummond, published by Unicorn at £ 25 (Church Times Bookshop £ 22.50); 978-1-913491-86-4.