This week I got a note from a reader about the image of the Nativity: “The Gospels give us Joseph receiving messages from God in dreams. A sleeping Joseph is therefore a Joseph disposed to prayer. I’m guessing that’s why he is so often depicted as sleeping.”
He’s right. If Joseph isn’t sleeping by the manger, he’s sleeping on the flight into Egypt. Of course, iconography and symbolism in art served a different purpose prior to the Enlightenment. Viewers weren’t supposed to see Joseph as a narcoleptic. Paintings were ‘written’ for an uneducated but visually-literate audience. They related a story which most people accepted as true and very important.
Christ was born in a manger, and laid to rest in a tomb. The tomb appears in almost every Nativity painting as a foreshadowing of Christ’s death on the cross. It might take the form of crumbling masonry (a symbol of death), or a cave, representing Christ’s literal tomb. The rocks in Leonardo da Vinci’s “Virgin of the Rocks” are pierced by glimpses of Paradise. In many of these paintings, the opening is in the form of an arch; this meant eternal life to the reader.
My reader also pointed out to me that crèche barnyard animals point back to Isaiah 1:3:
The ox knows its master,
the donkey its owner’s manger,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand.
Not all symbolism in Renaissance nativities was strictly faith-based. Sandro Botticelli painted The Mystical Nativity immediately after the execution of the fanatic Savonarola in Botticelli’s native Florence. This was a time of great upheaval all over Europe.
Across the top is written, “This picture, at the end of the year 1500, in the troubles of Italy, I Alessandro, in the half-time after the time, painted, according to the eleventh [chapter] of Saint John, in the second woe of the Apocalypse, during the release of the devil for three-and-a-half years; then he shall be bound in the twelfth [chapter] and we shall see [him buried] as in this picture.” (He is referring to what we now call the Book of Revelation.)
In other words, Botticelli believed he was painting through the Tribulation. The Mystical Nativity depicts of two of Savonarola’s sermons. That is where the dancing angels come from—they are a literal transcription of a dream.
I used to be much more interested in symbolism in my own work. However, we don’t communicate in symbolic terms like our ancestors did. That makes faith-based painting much more difficult, as it is now about the reaction of the artist rather than the story itself.