The Nativity Icon

Modern Icon of the Nativity

The most wise Lord comes to be born,
Receiving hospitality from His own creatures.
Let us also receive Him,
That this divine Child in the cave may make us His guests
In the paradise of delights!

The Birth of Christ has always been celebrated and hymned by Christians in some way or other, as it is central to the Faith. The Word of God in past times may have appeared as an angel of the Lord, or the divine fire of the burning bush, but now, from this time onwards, He has become one of us; and not just as a fully-grown man descended from Heaven, but in humility God is born of a woman, and comes to us as a tiny, speechless, infant. This is what is shown in the Nativity Icon, and around this central historical event other stories surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ are depicted.

The common form of the Nativity Icon, with few variations, dates from around the 15th century, though it draws upon sources much older: the Old Testament Prophecies, the New Testament Gospel accounts, and ancient narratives on the life of the Virgin Mary.

The New Testament in the Nativity Icon

Top portion of Nativity Icon

The child-Christ and His mother are shown in a cave, surrounded by impossibly sharp, inhospitable, rocks which reflect the cruel world into which Jesus was born. The Gospels record that Joseph and Mary could not find a room at any inn when they came to take part in the census at Bethlehem, and so Jesus was laid in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough. Common to the time, animals were not sheltered in wooden barns, but in caves and recesses in the hills, and so this “stable” is shown in the Icon.

High in the skies is a star which sends down a single shaft towards the baby Jesus. This star is being followed by the Magi, the wise Persians from the East, who are bearing gifts to the Christ. But they are shown in the distance, still on their journey. They are not there.

Thronged in the skies are a host of angels bringing the glad tidings of the birth of the world’s Saviour. On the right, the shepherds – people not regarded by anyone else – are the first to be given the Good News of Jesus’ birth. But they are also shown outside of the cave, still by their flocks. They too are not at Christ’s side yet.

Besides His mother, the only company Jesus Christ has in the first few hours of His earthly life are a lowly ox and donkey. This is the humility of God’s incarnation on earth.

The Old Testament in the Nativity Icon

Christ in manger surrounded by ox and ass

A prophecy of Isaiah fulfilled

The humbleness of Christ’s origins should not surprise us, as the manner of His birth was prophesied many hundreds of years prior to the event. The presence of the Ox and the Donkey in the Nativity icon fulfills one of many prophecies in the Old Testament book of Isaiah:

“The ox knows his owner, and the donkey his master’s crib” (Isaiah 1:3) . Here the animals are also shown providing warmth to Jesus by their breath.

Mary gazes toward the Jesse Tree

Mary gazes toward the Jesse Tree

Also found somewhere in most icons of the Nativity is a “Jesse Tree.” Named after an Old Testament patriarch, the tree’s presence is to remind us of another fulfilled prophecy from Isaiah:

“A shoot shall sprout from the stump (tree) of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him” (Isaiah 11:1-2). In the flesh, Jesus can trace his ancestry through both His mother and adoptive father Joseph, all the way back to Jesse. This lineage is also sometimes shown in Icons of the Jesse Tree.

Other Ancient Texts in the Nativity Icon

Salome washing the Christ Child

Another important source for the story of Jesus’ birth is the Protoevangelium of James, a 2nd century text which describes the life of the Virgin Mary. This naturally includes a description of Christ’s Nativity, and the account is more detailed than those found in the Gospels. According to the Evangelium, Joseph brought along two women – a midwife and a woman called Salome – to help with the birth of Jesus. Salome is identified with a woman who later became a disciple of Christ, was the mother of the Apostles James and John, and was one of the women who discovered the empty tomb after Christ’s resurrection.

The Righteous Joseph lokking troubledBut where is Joseph? Unlike the well-known Nativity scenes in the West, in Orthodox Icons Joseph is usually found in the bottom of the icon, away from his betrothed and her Son. Sometimes seen listening to an old man, Joseph looks troubled. He is beset with new doubts regarding this birth, and these doubts are delivered to him by satan in the form of an old man, as recorded in the Protoevangelium. The devil suggests that if the infant were truly divine He would not have been born in the human way. These arguments, which ultimately did not cause Joseph to stumble, have constantly returned to trouble the Church, and are the basis of many heresies regarding Who Christ was and is. In the person of Joseph, the icon discloses not only his personal drama, but the drama of all mankind, the difficulty of accepting that which is beyond reason, the Incarnation of God.

As well as declaring the glorious and joyous news of the Birth of Christ, the icon also acknowledges, as do the hymns of the Church, the great mystery of this event.

How is He contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain?
And how can He who is in the bosom of the Father
be held in the arms of His Mother?
This is according to His good pleasure,
as He knows and wishes.
For being without flesh,
of His own will has He been made flesh;
and He Who Is,
for our sakes has become that which He was not.
Without departing from His own nature
He has shared in our substance.
Desiring to fill the world on high with citizens,
Christ has undergone a twofold birth.

See also: the Womb and the Tomb


This entry was posted in History, Icons of Christ, Icons of the Incarnation, The Theotokos and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to The Nativity Icon

  1. Pingback: Akathist Hymn in Icons | Prophecies and Praises | A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

  2. Shelley Pituch says:

    I’d like to provide a link for the above Nativity Icon images and information on our Departmental Homepage for the Antiochian Orthodox Department of Christian Education. Would we have permission to do so?

    • iconreader says:

      Hello Shelley:

      The writing is mine so you can use as much or as little as you like. I don’t have the copyright for the images to give you, but I suppose you could always use your own versions of the Nativity Icon if you have them.

      Apart from the main image at the top of the post, the pictures in this post were all taken from a single fresco of the Nativity, found in the Holy Trinity Church, Butte, MT. This page has a full, high-res, picture of the Nativity fresco:

      All the frescoes on that page are excellent.

      Hope it will help you.

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  5. Bill M says:

    Nativity was the first icon I was really drawn to, when I began learning about icons. Have you seen this one from St. Catherine’s Monastery? It contains most of the elements you describe here, and dates back to the 600s.

    I love the look on the ox’s face. 🙂

    • iconreader says:

      Thanks for the link. I do love the icons of St Catherine’s, and have used a number of them in my posts. Being isolated and in dry desert conditions meant that their icons have survived remarkably well, making it is a treasure of pre-Iconoclast iconography.

  6. Reblogged this on The Georgian Church for English Speakers and commented:
    Anyone visiting an Orthodox temple tonight will notice the Icon of the Nativity displayed prominently. The symbolism of this icon is very well explained here

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  8. First, thanks for making this blog; it’s a great resource! I have a question re: Nativity icons. I was in Bethlehem a few weeks ago and saw this icon ( over the altar in the Grotto of the Nativity. It’s not especially atypical but I’m curious if you can tell us who the two female figures on either side are. (Neither seem to be the traditional midwives.) The right one looks a lot like St. Mary of Egypt. Any thoughts?,

    Thanks again for all the work you put into this site.

  9. Evan says:

    Thanks for this post. Could you tell me where the Protoevangelium mentions the devil tempting Joseph? Thanks!

    • Philoschole says:

      I was unable to find the tempting of Joseph by the devil in the Protoevangelium of James, the Arabic Gospel of Matthew, the Armenian Gospel of Matthew, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, or the History of Joseph the Carpenter. It may very well be from the apocryphal tradition, but I have not found a source for it.

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  13. Pingback: The Ass and The Ox in The Nativity Icon  « ORTHODOX CITY HERMIT

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  16. Margaret says:

    I was three years old, and at church with my Yiayia. The icon of the Nativity of Christ was on an easel in front of the Royal Gates inside the tiny church of Sts. Constantine and Helen in Great Falls, Montana. When the service ended, as we stood up, I asked her what this picture meant (it was clearly no ordinary picture, but one full of meaning). My Yiayia stood next to the icon and as she spoke, she began tracing with her finger from the top of the icon where the ellipse symbolizing the Father is and following the ray entering the cave, said, “God Himself willed to be born as a little child.” The words, I now know, are those of the Nativity hymn of St. Romanos the Melodist. She went on to read the entire icon to me. Her words were indelible. I remember it all as though it happened last night.

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  18. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Reblogged this on Eclectic Orthodoxy.

  19. Reblogged this on Myrtle Skete and commented:
    From another blogger:

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  21. Pingback: The Synaxis of the Mother of God | A Reader's Guide to Orthodox Icons

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