On the History of the Nativity Scene

It’s not everyday that the course of my research drives me into immediately popular territory—that is, interesting and relevant to normal people who don’t spend all of their time thinking about religion or biblical studies. But recently I was looking into court cases and other newsworthy incidents surrounding the public display (meaning, on public property) of nativity scenes. The end result was a fun term paper on a 37-year-old case that took place right in my backyard of Denver, for which professors from my two institutions (Iliff School of Theology and the University of Denver) served as expert witnesses. It was called Citizens Concerned for Separation of Church and State v. City and County of Denver, and most of the relevant details can be read in the Saint Louis University Law Journal,[1] if you’re interested.

In his deposition for that case, the Mayor of Denver, William McNichols, testified of the nativity scene:

“It is not offensive to anyone nor should it be.”[2]

The mayor might have needed a lesson on facts versus opinions. Whether the crèche was offensive or not was not the concern or the trial; rather, the groups that bring these sorts of suits allege that the display of religious symbols on public grounds violates the First Amendment’s establishment clause. Contrary to Mayor McNichols, Judge Richard Matsch heard at trial from a number of people—professors of religion, psychologists, a Jewish woman, Christians of various denominations, and an atheist—very compelling reasons why the crèche was offensive.[3]

Somehow, the judicial system has held that the display of the nativity scene on public grounds is permissible, thus ignoring the Constitution “in order to placate popular opposition to its clear demands.”[4] Thus we continue to see episodes of competing displays between Christian nativities, a Satanist “snaketivity,” Gay Pride Festivus Poles, the Flying Spaghetti Monster, and placards wishing passersby a “Happy Solstice.” What insanity!

Fox News’ Gretchen Carlson, as lampooned in Dec. 2013 by Jon Stewart (we miss ye dearly).

In the midst of my research, I became interested in the history of the nativity scene: when it was first displayed, how it developed, and why it’s now such a cultural cause célèbre. I didn’t answer all of these questions scientifically. For the last of them, it seems to me that a subset of Christians latch onto the nativity scene out of a concern that Christ not be erased from Christmas, given that it’s the most overtly religious symbol for what broader culture has so egregiously refashioned as the “Holiday Season.”

The other questions are more empirically answerable. And the result is a story not often told.

Biblical Origins

Though they contain some common elements, such as Mary’s virginal conception and the birth in Bethlehem, the two gospels featuring “pre-ministry” narratives are essentially irreconcilable.[5] Matthew tells a story of Joseph’s dreams, a hovering star, a birth in Mary and Joseph’s “hometown” of Bethlehem, the visit of the magi, and the family’s exile in Egypt during the final stages of Herod the Great’s life (d. 4 BCE). Luke replaces these elements with Gabriel’s appearance to Mary, the worldwide census under the governorship of Quirinius (c. 6 CE), an improbable trek to Bethlehem from the family’s hometown of Nazareth, no vacancy at the inn, a choir of angels, and curious shepherds.

Told as they were by different human authors for different human audiences on opposite ends of the Roman Empire—some 75 to 100 years removed from the events they describe—these disparate stories cannot be plausibly combined into a master narrative, as careful observers in the early church recognized. Scholars have generally decided that the narratives were constructed not as a reflection of history, but to conform to various so-called prophecies from the Hebrew Bible other typological and mythological elements. Jesus was probably not born in Bethlehem, but in his well-acknowledged hometown of Nazareth, and his conception and birth were most likely completely conventional.[6]

Two-Dimensional Art

But the Christians of late antiquity certainly weren’t privy to the conclusions of modern scholarship. Instead, their art reflected the stories told in scripture. When Christianity achieved the status of approved religion in the Roman Empire in the 4th century, artwork celebrating Jesus’s birth began to appear—ironically enough—on the large, ornate stone coffins known as sarcophagi (singular: sarcophagus, from Greek, literally meaning “flesh-eater.”). A few examples are below in Figs. A and B:

Fig. A: Sarcophagus lid, marble, late 4th century. Origin unknown, but housed today at the Vatican. Notice Mary alone (Matthew 2:11), the star overhead, and the ox-ass pairing.
(Possibly also) Fig. A: Though detached from the previous image, this sarcophagus fragment seems to depict the magi presenting gifts. Yes, though, those do look quite like sheep!
Fig. B: Sarcophagus body, marble, date unknown but presumed contemporaneous with Fig. A (4th century). France. The magi occupy the lower panel, whereas the ox-ass combo closely inspect baby Jesus.

In comparison to the common modern nativity scene, with their hosts of characters, these depictions are rather reserved. Fig. B shows Mary and Joseph, while Fig. A only includes Mary, and both feature the magi paying their respects to Jesus. A star hangs nearby Mary in both examples. But the most interesting element of these sarcophagi is the pair of animals overlooking the infant Jesus, which appears in neither of the gospel accounts telling the story of his birth.

As becomes clearer in the artwork below, these animals are an ox and an ass. Though traditionally mentioned together in the Hebrew Bible, such as in the well-known opening verses of Isaiah (“The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib…” [Is 1:3]), the iconography of the ox and the ass does not point to any particular scriptural referent. Instead, Jonathan Pageau counts their primary intention at the nativity as the proclamation of the church made possible by Jesus’s sacrifice[7]; thus, the animals at Jesus’s birth foretell the joining together of the clean (the ox, representing Jews/Israel) and the unclean (the ass, representing Gentiles, sinners, etc.) under the plan of God (cf. Acts 10; Galatians 3:28-29).

Eventually, nativity artwork appeared on other mediums, from gospel manuscripts and book covers to the ceilings and altars of holy spaces. In each case, the ox-ass pairing is retained, and Joseph also becomes a mainstay of the depictions. A representative example of such artwork from the 5th to the 13th centuries is below:

Fig. C: Gospel book cover, ivory, mid-to-late fifth century. Origin from Western Christianity, perhaps near Milan.
Fig. D: Lid of Byzantine reliquary casket, 6th century. Origin from Eastern Christianity. Note the despondent Joseph—from around this time, it becomes common to depict Joseph as troubled, with his hand to his face. This is also the first indication of the nativity scene taking place not in a gazebo-like structure, but rather a cave.
Fig. E: Painting within a gospel manuscript, 11th century. Germany. Notice that our cast of characters has increased to include a number of angels.
Fig. F: Ceiling mosaic, 12th century, Daphni Monastery, Greece. The angels overlook the beams of the Matthean star, which somehow reach down at the entrance of the cave, while the ox and ass play peekaboo.
Fig. G: Painting from the Altar of the Holy Virgin Mary, 13th century, Avia, Catalonia.

Interestingly, before about 1000 CE, surviving examples of nativity art are rare. Though an imperfect representation of nativity scene popularity in the historical imagination, the search results bar reproduced below, revealing hits (including some false hits) for the term “nativity,” yet approximates the development of the crèche in surviving art. It suggests growth and increased interest in the nativity beginning significantly only in the second millennium of the common era.


It is, of course, possible that the set-in-stone sarcophagus inscriptions are merely our earliest surviving examples of nativity artwork, and that drawings and paintings of the nativity were popular from the earliest Christian centuries, but have not survived the stresses of time. This would be an argument from silence, however, and I am aware of no nativity artwork from—to take a thematic example from other spaces of preserving the remains of the deceased—early Christian catacombs, where other scriptural referents reign: Jonah and the whale, Jesus’s baptism, the raising of Lazarus, Jesus and the Samaritan woman, and others.[8] Absent historical evidence, I proceed under the impression that nativity artwork only became a topos in the 4th century, though situated within and juxtaposed against the space of human death, it may well have emerged as a rather literal hetero-topos (following Michel Foucault and Eric C. Smith) before emigrating into other artistic venues.

The Third Dimension: Stand-Up Nativities

Still, even through the completion of the 13th century Fig. G above, the crèche abided only in two-dimensional artwork. It wasn’t until 1223 CE when St. Francis of Assisi organized the first “live” nativity that the scene would pop out of popular art into the third dimension. Notably, however, his visual depiction mirrored the simplest of the art displayed above. A recent article in Slate explains:

St. Francis got permission from Pope Honorious III to set up a manger with hay and two live animals—an ox and an ass—in a cave in the Italian village of Grecio. He then invited the villagers to come gaze upon the scene while he preached about “the babe of Bethlehem.” (Francis was supposedly so overcome by emotion that he couldn’t say “Jesus.”)

It is unclear whether this first stand-up nativity scene included living human beings and an infant, but L.V. Anderson adds that either way, it had primarily educational value in a day when few understood the Latin spoken at mass. St. Francis delivered his message in the local tongue rather than the high church language, and his public display of the nativity performed the same familiarizing effect. He presumably expounded on the significance of the ox and the ass while telling the story of Jesus’s birth, now relocated to a cave (as in Figs. D and F above) given the influence of the account in the Protoevangelium of James [ch. 19] and the well-known fact that the Bethlehem Church of the Nativity was situated atop a grotto ripe for the pilgrimage. One can only long to have heard the story as St. Francis told it, if for no other reason to understand how he managed to narrate the events completely without mentioning Jesus.

This gesture, equal parts reverential and educational in genesis, would spread rapidly across the European continent. It was further fertilized by the Catholic Church’s response to Martin Luther, whose Protestant Reformation opposed rampant iconography and instead preferred the evergreen tree as a Christmastime symbol. In response, the Council of Trent (1545-1563) boosted the staying power of the nativity scene, blessing it as an officially sanctioned display, but also detaching it from the canonical birth accounts. Previously, most artwork featured only one scene or the other: the magi bearing gifts (so Matthew) or the shepherds and the angels (so Luke). Now, as in the present day, all characters were invited to the scene.

Shortly after the Council of Trent, the Jesuit Order set mechanizing the crèche into workable, automatic three-dimensional displays.[9] These mechanical exhibits were soon in full demand among the wealthy, aristocratic classes and in churches and royal palaces as well. One example, constructed toward the end of the 16th century for the Court of Saxony, “includes shepherds and kings proceeding past the manger while angels fly down from Heaven, Joseph rocks the cradle, and an ox and an ass rise up to stand before the Holy Infant.”[10] Within just a few centuries, the St. Francis’s simple educational and reverential endeavor had given way to the sort of ostentation we moderns might enjoy during an 8 p.m. drive around Suburbia.


Nativity Manger
“Nativity Manger” via GlacierGuyMT on Flickr

Despite Reformation-era divisions between the evergreen “Christmas tree” and the nativity scene, contemporary American Protestantism has found little problem incorporating both symbols of the holiday season. Few are aware that Martin Luther and early Protestants virulently opposed the iconography of the crèche, often counted as the more explicitly religious of the two symbols today, and virtually all would be surprised to learn that the nativity scene is a phenomenon limited largely to the second Christian millennium. This brief history of the nativity does not detract from its present popularity within Christianity, but adds an oft-untold backstory of the most popular display of religion to modern battles over its appropriateness in the public square.

Final Thoughts

At best, the nativity scene is a theologically rich, though historically dubious, symbol of the Christian proclamation of Jesus’s origins. Though revered by many, it attests to particular ideas not apparently shared in the period of Christian origins by the authors of Mark and John, and also not celebrated in the present day by certain Christian denominations and individuals. As a display and even in artwork, the crèche was developmentally delayed, and did not appear extensively until the 11th century. Treasuring the display of the nativity scene is thus largely a product of the second Christian millennium, though it eventually achieved near-ubiquity in the Christian world as a symbol of reverence. Even then, Protestant Reformers would reject the nativity on iconographic grounds for a while, preferring to erect evergreen trees as part of their Christmas celebrations. Most who faithfully place the nativity scene side-by-side with a Christmas tree are probably unaware of the previous Catholic-Protestant rift exemplified by these two symbols.

The early 20th century witnessed many municipalities—including Denver, beginning in 1913—opting to display the nativity scene on public grounds with public funds, and this lasted for decades without significant opposition given Christianity’s grip on American society. Today, however, the nativity scene can only be so publicly arrayed as a denial of pluralism and the erosion of Christianity as the common cultural soil. What St. Francis cobbled together out of deep reverence, and as an educational tool, is often foisted upon the public sphere antagonistically, wrapped in the clothes of tradition but imbued with spite, rather than the good news. The escalating recriminations in recent years from atheists, humanists, and wisecrackers are but a mirror, a long time coming, held up in the face of this protracted evangelism-by-force.

It’s no wonder that fewer and fewer are interested in this version of the Christian story.

Offline Citations

[1] Jonathon B. Chase, “Litigating A Nativity Scene Case,” Saint Louis University Law Journal 24.2 (Sept. 1980): 237-271. The plaintiffs, members of a Denver humanist organization, were represented by the ACLU of Colorado, which argued a rather excellent case and won a slam-dunk decision by Judge Richard Matsch, though the decision was immediately stayed and later vacated over “standing” concerns. (At retrial in 1981, the Tenth Circuit Court found resoundingly against the Citizens Concerned group.)

[2] Ibid., 239.

[3] For example, the Jewish woman explained powerfully that the crèche made her wary of persecution, while the two Christians expressed various misgivings, including that they were disappointed in how the city’s display elevated their beliefs while simultaneously demeaning or disregarding those of others. Most significantly, the clinical psychologist testified to feelings of fear and exclusion within out-group members when the dominant culture stages “public expressions of values” not shared by the entire society. The testimony had a significant cumulative effect on Judge Matsch, who ruled that “the evidence presented at this trial is so overwhelmingly supportive of the plaintiffs’ position.” Furthermore, he noted: “The convincing expressions by various witnesses of their feelings of “discomfort,” “anger,” “fear” and “being left out” upon viewing the scene, coupled with the expert testimony of the psychologist as to the effects upon minorities of symbolic governmental alignment with the majority, strongly suggest that the Nativity Scene may well have the effect also of inhibiting religious beliefs (non-beliefs) of viewers.” Ibid., 265, 267.

[4] Chase, 268. See also Jill Nutter Fuchs, “Publicly-Funded Display of Religious Symbols: The Nativity Scene Controversy,” Cincinnati Law Review 51 (1982): 353-372.

[5] Raymond E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah, updated ed. (New York: Anchor Bible Reference Library, 1993), 189.

[6] Gerd Theissen and Annette Merz, The Historical Jesus: A Comprehensive Guide, trans. John Bowden (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 164-166; 569.

[7] Pageau, interestingly, also regards the presence of the ass, as a beast of burden, as “a symbol of corporality itself,” and thus an indication of the Word made Flesh and the Johannine doctrine of the incarnation. I am open to this but not totally convinced; I would be interested in hearing whether the ox similarly carries some second-level symbolism.

[8] For greater detail, see Eric C. Smith, Foucault’s Heterotopia in Christian Catacombs (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 52 and the entirety of ch. 5.

[9] Christian Roy, “Christmas,” Traditional Festivals: A Multicultural Encyclopedia: Volume 1 (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004), 64.

[10] Jessica Riskin, The Restless Clock: A History of the Centuries-Long Argument over What Makes Living Things Tick (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016), 26.

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