Artists through the years have been filled with wonder and joy at the events of the first Christmas and I pray their efforts here to illustrate their wonder will bring joy to your Christmas this year!
Here are 15 famous paintings of the Christmas Story and the Bible verses they illustrate.
The Annunciation to Mary
. . . the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with chlld and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” Luke,1:30-33 NIV
Fra Angelico was a monk who painted frescoes of Jesus’ life throughout his monastery in Florence. This annunciation greets you as you climb the stairs to the monks’ chambers. I wrote a Christmas post about this painting in December of 2015.
This triptych or 3-panel altarpiece is one of the first Annunciations to show Mary in a regular home, in this case, a typical home in the Netherlands in the 1300 and 1400s. Almost everything in this painting symbolizes something about Jesus and His birth. For example, Mary is sitting on the floor to symbolize her humility.
This Annunciation is part of a huge altarpiece painted by Matthias Grunewald. It is now a treasured part of a monastery-turned museum in Colmar, France. But it narrowly escaped destruction during the French Revolution.
Henry Ossawa Tanner, an African-American artist of the 19th and early 20th centuries depicts the angel Gabriel as a column of radiating light.
The angel answered [Mary], “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” Luke 1:35 NIV
In this illuminated manuscript by the Celtic monks of Iona, an island off the west coast of Scotland, the Incarnation is depicted as the miraculous mystery it is–a mystery beyond our imagining–that God could be born of a woman to live among us as Immanuel and die for our sins! In December of 2014, I wrote a post about the Chi Rho page that most illuminated manuscripts of the early Middle Ages have. It is the illumination of Matt. 1:18, where the gospel switches from Jesus’ ancestry to His birth with the Latin words Christi autem generatio, which means, “this is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about….” For this reason it is called the Incarnation page, and on it the monks used a traditional symbol for the word Christ–the first two letters of Christ in Greek–Chi-Rho or XP.
. . . . [Mary] entered Zechariah’s home and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But why am I so favored; that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” Luke 1:40-43 NIV
In this beautiful painting of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth, we see the emotion in each of their faces and gestures as they experience together the wonder of what God has done!
While they were there [Bethlehem], the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. Luke 2:6-7 NIV
In the lower, plainer church of St. Francis of Assisi is this beautiful painting of the Nativity by Giotto. St. Francis is said to be the one who began the practice of having a creche scene at Christmas.
The Annunciation to the Shepherds
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be assigned to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Luke 2:8-14 NIV
Another beautiful painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner, this time a nocturnal scene of the angel’s annunciation to the shepherds. It captures the wonder of the angel’s appearance and their amazement!
The only print in this group, it’s by Rembrandt and also captures the wonder of that night.
Honthorst has captured the continuing wonder of the shepherds as they follow the angel’s instructions to find the babe wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. This year’s Christmas post was about this painting.
Mary’s joy in her son is so evident in another panel from the Isenheim Altarpiece. The Altarpiece was painted for a monastery where the monks treated people with skin diseases, and it was believed that gazing on these paintings would help the patients be reminded of Christ and His love and salvation for even the most humble. In December of 2018, I wrote a Christmas post about this painting.
The Visit of the Magi
after Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the East came to Jerusalem and asked, “where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the East and have come to worship him.”
After they had heard the king, they [Magi] went on their way in the store they had seen in the East went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and myrrh. Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11 NIV
Durer shows the coming of the wisemen, here depicted as elegant and wealthy men, to worship the Christ Child. Medieval tradition held that one of the wisemen was an old man, another was a young man, and one was African.
The Massacre of the Innocents
when Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. Matthew 2:16 NIV
This fresco is from a series Giotto painted on the life of Christ in the small but beautiful Arena Chapel in Padua, Italy. A forerunner of the Renaissance, Giotto amazed his contemporaries with his life-like people. Here he shows the intense emotions of the Massacre of the Innocents.
The Flight or Escape into Egypt
When they [Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.”
So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt . . . Matthew 2:13-14 NIV
After the intensity of the last painting, this one of the Fight into Egypt seems so calm and even restful. but as Mary holding the Baby Jesus looks back at Joseph, you can sense her sense of urgency.
Another calm painting as Mary offers grapes to her son. In the background Joseph is shown beating nuts or perhaps fruit from a tree to care for them. The donkey waits patiently beside them.
I hope these paintings will bless your celebration of the wonder of the birth of our Savior–Immanuel, God with us! And that the wonder and joy will continue to fill you in the New Year!