December 2009 – January 2010
Vol. XV, No. 9
“ And this will be a sign for you…”
The Language of the Christmas Crib
Adoration of the Shepherds – Portinari Altarpiece, by Hugo van der Goes
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
by Helen Hull Hitchcock
“And this will be a sign for you: You shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger”. Luke 2:12
In his Angelus message for the Third Sunday of Advent, December 11, 2005, Pope Benedict spoke of the family tradition of the Christmas Crib:
“Following a beautiful and firmly rooted tradition, many families set up their Crib immediately after the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, as if to relive with Mary those days full of trepidation that preceded the birth of Jesus. Putting up the Crib at home can be a simple but effective way of presenting faith, to pass it on to one’s children.
“The Crib helps us contemplate the mystery of God’s love that was revealed in the poverty and simplicity of the Bethlehem grotto. Saint Francis of Assisi was so taken by the mystery of the Incarnation that he wanted to present it anew at Greccio in the living Nativity scene, thus beginning an old, popular tradition that still retains its value for evangelization today.
“Indeed, the Crib can help us understand the secret of the true Christmas because it speaks of the humility and merciful goodness of Christ, who ‘though He was rich He made Himself poor’ for us. (II Cor 8:9)”
The origin of the Christmas Crib (or Nativity scene — in French, crêche; Italian, presepio; German, krippe; Spanish, nacimiento) is ascribed to Saint Francis of Assisi, who in 1223 celebrated the Feast of the Nativity in a new way that led to a new devotional practice.
Saint Francis sent for his friend, Giovanni Vellita, a landowner in Greccio, where Francis had a favorite hermitage, and said, “If now it seems good to you that we should celebrate this feast together, go before me to Greccio and prepare everything as I tell you. I desire to represent the birth of that Child in Bethlehem in such a way that with our bodily eyes we may see what He suffered for lack of the necessities of a newborn babe, and how He lay in a manger between the ox and ass”.
Christian symbolism in the painting
On the cover of this issue is a famous 15th-century Flemish painting of the adoration of the shepherds, known as the Portinari Altarpiece. The painting is not simply an imaginative representation of the birth of Christ, however. It is filled with symbols that conveyed the entire mystery of the Eucharist — Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection for the salvation of mankind. This symbolism would have been familiar to most people of that time. It served as a kind of universal language, accessible to all, that could convey complex and layered religious meaning — without words. This image-language is now largely lost, however. Young children find this symbolic religious imagery deeply interesting when it is explained to them, which is hardly surprising. Studying this painting can be a lesson in how to read the messages written in images.
The artist, Hugo Van der Goes (1440?-1482), was born in Goes (now in the Netherlands) and painted principally at Ghent, where he was first listed as a member of the painters’ guild in 1467. The large triptych, the Portinari Altarpiece, was commissioned by Tommaso Portinari of Florence, the banking agent of the Medici family in Brugge (Bruges). Portinari commissioned the altarpiece for the Sant’ Egidio, the church of the Arcispedale (great hospital) of Santa Maria Nuova in Florence, founded in 1288 by the banker’s ancestor, Folco Portinari. The altarpiece, painted in about 1476, arrived in Florence in 1483, where it was installed at the high altar of Sant’ Egidio. This unusually masterful oil painting greatly influenced many Italian artists of the period. In 1900 the painting was transferred to the Uffizi gallery in Florence, where it remains.
The adoration scene
The large central panel of the altarpiece — about five by nine feet — portrays the adoration of the shepherds. Side panels contain portraits of the donors with their patron saints. The scene — almost like a stage-set — is in a collapsing Romanesque castle, which signifies the destruction of the Old Testament world that the Messiah would renew. On the right, the shepherds emerge through the remnants of a wooden stable. At the left side is a classical pillar from the destroyed building, next to a coffin-like manger, with the ox and the ass.
The Flemish countryside is the background of this imagined Bethlehem. A tiny image of the angel’s annunciation to the shepherds is visible in the upper right-hand corner.
Especially notable in this painting is the remarkably powerful realism and individualism of the three awestruck shepherds. Their expressions of joy and amazement as they fall to their knees in adoration of the Christ child contrast strikingly with the solemn, almost somber, faces and postures of the angels and Mary and Joseph.
Mary, in a dark blue robe, adores her infant Son with her hands folded in prayer. Her face appears wistful, sad — not joyful and rejoicing at the birth of her child, as one might expect. Her expression prefigures the sorrow she would bear at His crucifixion.
The infant Jesus lies directly on the stone floor, naked, with tiny arms extended, and His mouth half-open. His body is surrounded by a star-like aureole of golden rays, and He is encircled by kneeling angels. This unusual depiction of the Nativity, in fact, symbolizes the Eucharist. The Christ child is the priest, clothed only in the chasuble of His own flesh.
The angels that surround the Holy Infant, smaller than the other figures in the scene, are wearing the liturgical vestments of subordinate ministers of the Solemn High Mass: albs and amices, deacon’s stole, dalmatic and copes. (That the angels often appear in vestments in early paintings was observed by the late Father Maurice McNamee, SJ, of St. Louis University. See his 1998 book, Vested Angels.) The red and gold cope of the angel at the lower right is bordered with the words Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, and his wings are of peacock feathers — another link to the Eucharist, as the peacock was a symbol of the Resurrection.
The still life in the foreground — very realistically painted vases of flowers and a sheaf of wheat — also symbolizes the Eucharist and the Passion.
The sheaf of wheat refers to the bread of the Last Supper, where Christ instituted the Eucharist. It also suggests Bethlehem, which in Hebrew means “house of bread”.
The reddish lilies symbolize Christ’s passion, and the white iris flowers represent purity and innocence, while the dark blue indicates sorrow and mourning. The seven blade-like iris leaves and the seven columbine flowers represent the sorrows of the Virgin Mary, and allude to Simeon’s prophecy given to her: “Behold this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed”. (Luke 2:34-35)
The columbine is so-called because its petals resemble doves — dove = columba, in Latin — and it is often associated with Mary. The violets scattered on the floor represent her humility, their colors signify purity and sorrow. The red carnation with its jagged petals is a symbol of the crucifixion.
The ox and the ass
But what do the ox and the ass mean? The ox and ass near the manger are found in nearly every Nativity scene — and have been since the 4th century. But they are not there merely to provide the atmosphere of a stable, nor are they the invention of a pious imagination. The tradition originates in two Old Testament passages foretelling the birth of Christ: Isaiah 1:3 — “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib, but Israel hath not understood”; and Habakkuk 3:2 — “In the midst of two animals Thou shalt become known”.
Pope Benedict, in “Ox and Ass Know Their Lord”, a chapter of his lovely little book, The Blessing of Christmas (Ignatius Press, 2007), explains:
The Fathers of the Church saw in these words a prophecy that pointed ahead to the new people of God, the Church consisting of both Jews and Gentiles. Before God, all men, Jews and Gentiles, were like the ox and ass, without reason or knowledge. But the child in the crib has opened their eyes so that they now recognize the voice of their Master, the voice of their Lord.
It is striking to note in the medieval pictures of Christmas how the artists give the two animals almost human faces and how they stand before the mystery of the child and bow down in awareness and reverence. But after all, this was only logical, since the two animals were considered the prophetical symbol for the mystery of the Church — our own mystery, since we are but oxen and asses vis-à-vis the Eternal God, oxen and asses whose eyes are opened on Christmas night, so that they can recognize their Lord in the crib.
But some failed to recognize the Savior, he notes. “And what about us?” the pope asks. Are we so wrapped up in ourselves that we become blind to the Child?
In this night, then, the faces of the ox and the ass look at us with a question: My people does not understand, but do you perceive the voice of your Lord? When we place the familiar figures in the crib scene, we ought to ask God to give our hearts the simplicity that discovers the Lord in the child — just as Francis once did in Greccio. For then we, too, might experience what Celano relates about those who took part in Midnight Mass in Greccio — and his words echo closely Saint Luke’s words about the shepherds on the first Christmas night — each one went home full of joy.
The Nativity scene in our homes
The Nativity scene soon found its way into homes. Catholic children have loved arranging the figures around the miniature manger for centuries. The Vatican directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy comments about this traditional practice:
As is well known, in addition to the representations of the crib found in churches since antiquity, the custom of building cribs in the home was widely promoted from the thirteenth century, influenced undoubtedly by Saint Francis of Assisi’s crib in Greccio. Their preparation, in which children play a significant role, is an occasion for the members of the family to come into contact with the mystery of Christmas, as they gather for a moment of prayer or to read the biblical accounts of the Lord’s birth. (§104)
As we prepare ourselves and our homes to celebrate the birth of our Savior, we ponder these things in our hearts. And may we receive Him anew with joy.
This article also appeared in Voices, Advent-Christmas 2009