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The Nativity

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

For Part I: Appreciating Stained Glass, click here.

It may seem incongruous to begin studying a series of Victorian stained glass panels with a reflection on one of Masaccio’s frescos in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. Although Edward Burne-Jones and many of his Victorian contemporaries drew tremendous inspiration from Italian art, my intention in starting with Masaccio’s “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden” is not art historical, but theological. Put in modern terms, The Fall of Adam and Eve is the backstory for the Christian Redemption story arc. Without it, Christianity makes no sense; the iconography of its art loses its poignancy and importance.

Masaccio’s fresco depicts Genesis 3:23, when God expels Adam and Eve, the first humans, from the Garden of Eden. The story is probably familiar to many: God had created paradise for them. They lived in harmony with God, creation, and one another. God told them that they could eat the fruit of any tree in the garden save one - the tree of knowledge of good and evil. The serpent, however, persuaded Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. “Your eyes will be opened and you will be like gods.” (Genesis 3:5) To maintain their sacred union with God, they had to follow but one rule. Overcome by distrust of God’s plan for them as well as an ambition to equal Him, they chose to break the rule and thus shatter this sublime bond. With the Fall came all the maladies of the human condition: enmity between man and woman had replaced its primordial harmony. Nature was no longer paradise, but a menacing threat to survival. With their children, Cain and Abel, came jealousy, fury, and murder. Throughout human history, we have had to struggle with the consequences of the Fall, this great rupture with God. We fail to love as God loves. At times, the manifestations appear minor – a hurtful comment on social media, an indifference to our neighbor’s suffering, or a petty theft. Other times, the consequences are horrific – rape, pestilence, and genocide.

I chose Masaccio’s fresco over the better known treatment of the subject by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Whereas Michelangelo exquisitely depicted Adam and Eve’s sense of shame, Masaccio depicted their sadness. They had lived in communion with God’s perfect love. Their agony is their intense feeling of loss.

In all our hearts lives an intense desire to restore that primordial unity of love. In the Christian understanding of Redemption, it is God’s desire as well.

With this concept in mind, we travel to the middle of England in the late 19th century, to St. Philip’s Church in Birmingham.

St. Philip's Church, mid-nineteenth century - prior to Chatwin's extension.

Since its construction in 1715, the city had experienced extraordinary growth, its population growing forty-fold. A key center of the Industrial Revolution, the city had also grown wealthy. This Italianate Baroque church was not yet a Cathedral – that elevation would occur in 1905 - but located in the center of the city, it was arguably Birmingham’s most prominent Anglican church. The architect Julius Alfred Chatwin was asked in the 1880s to extend the chancel, the eastmost part of the church behind the altar. The redesign included new choir stalls, a new space for the organ and three large stained glass windows which would depict the Ascension, the Crucifixion and the Nativity/Annunciation to the Shepherds. The Church was fortunate that the heiress Emma Chadwick Villiers-Wilkes agreed to donate the funds needed for the stained glass. It could therefore commission stained glass of the highest quality, designed by Edward Burne-Jones, and manufactured by Morris & Co. The fourth window, depicting the Last Judgment, is set in the west wall of the Church. It was a separate commission and was completed in 1897.

Interior of St. Philip's Cathedral, facing eastward. Note the size of the stained glass windows.

A letter from William Morris to Chatwin dated November 1, 1886 reveals how the nature of light affected the composition. Congregants facing east would catch the morning sun through the windows. “Considering the character of the East window it is necessary to have subjects that would admit more figures…We must keep up the colour in the new windows to a high pitch, or we shall spoil the effect of the whole group. This is such an important work that we ought to do our very best to make it perfect.”

Other surviving letters reveal the challenges of dealing with their patron, who had some very particular views on the choice of subject matter. Ms. Villiers-Wilkes had written to Chatwin “I particularly dislike the introduction of cattle in the Nativity. I consider them quite out of place, they were quite certain to be removed on such an occasion.” Burne-Jones preferred the traditional iconography of the ox and ass in the stable, which was rooted not the Gospels, but rather in the prophet Isaiah. (1) Morris protested that Burne-Jones “must be left a free hand, or I fear he will not undertake the commission”. Nevertheless, the two of them relented, and no cattle appeared.

Thus constrained, Burne-Jones opted for an iconography much more common in Eastern Orthodox traditions, depicting the Nativity in a cave. (2) Mary, kneels at the mouth a cave, adoring her swaddled infant son. A shallow pool of water separates them from Joseph and the angels. The colors are magnificent – Mary’s blue robe, Joseph’s red cloak as well as the green glass for the darkness of the cave. Careful attention was paid to the smallest of details – notice the florette patterns on Mary’s nimbus and headscarf, captured in Alastair Carew-Cox's stunning photographs:

As well as the pebbles in the shallow water:

Burne-Jones’s decision to include water in the cave is unusual for a depiction of the Nativity. Consistent with the broader pre-Raphaelite movement, Burne-Jones may have simply wanted to add naturalist details to a literally iconic scene. Bethlehem, after all, sits on an enormous aquifer, a fact the artist would have undoubtedly known, considering his long-standing interest in the Holy Land. Moreover, the water makes the piece compositionally more complex. But we can speculate whether Burne-Jones may have also had a personal, spiritual reason for including water: St. Philip’s is the church where he was baptized on New Year’s Day, 1834.

Burne-Jones described the Nativity as “too beautiful not to be true.” This statement is not intended as a theological proof; rather, it is a personal response to Jesus Christ as the redeemer of mankind. Burne-Jones believed his artistic skills took on an almost priestly dimension: “It is the power of bringing God into the world—making God manifest,” he said. The beauty of the art must be commensurate with the beauty of the event itself, “the dawn of redeeming grace,” to use the words of the carol “Silent Night.”

Our modern sensibilities may well be confounded: What can be beautiful about childbirth in a cold, dark, and presumably damp cave? To answer that question, we need to return to that journey from Paradise to Birmingham and understand the significance of Christ’s birth in Christian teaching. Adam and Eve’s “Original Sin” separated mankind from God. These same sensibilities may not like the word “sin”, but it encompasses those vices inherent in human existence since the dawn of time, from the petty to the horrific. We may call it another thing, but we are deluded if we believe that we ourselves do not manifest Original Sin in our own lives.

Into this bleakness comes the beauty of the Nativity. This beauty has several facets: Firstly, it is the manifestation of God’s desire to restore that primordial unity of love between Him and His creation that was lost in Eden. As such, it is a symbol of Hope. Then, there is the means by why which God accomplishes His plan. God becomes human. He enters the world, not as a triumphant conqueror, but as a helpless, vulnerable infant. Jesus Christ dwelt among us; although God, He experienced the fragility of human existence. In this sense, the birth in the cave was a feature, not a bug. Jesus was born in such humble circumstances that everyone – regardless how poor – can relate to their Redeemer.

According to the Gospels, the first people to hear about the birth of Christ were a group of lowly local shepherds, watching over their flocks. The scene is recounted in Luke 2:8-14, and appears in the same stained glass window, directly above the Nativity. Recall that one of the challenges with ecclesiastical stained glass is that compositions need to be vertical rather than horizontal. In this instance, Burne-Jones elected to depict two different scenes, one on top of the other.

The Evangelist recounts how “the angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them”. After calming their fears, the angel explains to the shepherds that “I will proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people…a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.” The exact moment depicted is Luke 2:13-14: “And suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace…”

To relay how the “glory of the Lord shone around them”, Burne-Jones depicts the angels in the most intense red.

They do not simply face the shepherds, but almost envelope them. Angels are understood to be non-corporal creatures, but pure spirit. The artist tries to convey this nature by depicting them as two-dimensional, while humans appear in three. The effect is powerful – awesome in both the colloquial and literal meaning of the word. I am again very grateful to Alastair Carew-Cox and Seraphim Press for allowing me to us their superb photographs. Angels meant more to Burne-Jones than simple characters in a scene. During a lecture in New York on January 9, 1882, the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde recounted: “I remember once, in talking to Mr. Burne-Jones about modern science, him saying to me, ‘the more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint: their wings are my protest in favor of the immortality of the soul.’”

The pre-Raphaelite interest in nature is apparent as well: first in the sheep, but, more strikingly, in the barren trees, which are encircled by the colors of the angels and the shepherds’ clothes.

In the deep, barren midwinter of the human condition, amidst poverty and adversity, the angels in their radiance announce the salvation of humanity. Although the vivid colors of the shepherds’ cloak balance the color of the angels, they remind us too how the human body is animated by a spiritual soul. It longs for a union with God.

We will turn next to the Crucifixion and its role in the redemption of humanity.


(1) Luke 2:7 recounts that Mary “wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger,” i.e. a trough from which animals are fed. Isaiah 1:3 begins “An ox know its owner, and an ass, its master’s manger.” From the as early as the third century A.D. Christian orators such as Origen of Alexandria were linking the Nativity with the Isaiah’s reference to the ox and ass. For a more in depth treatment of the subject, go here. What is particularly interesting is the fourth century sarcophagus illustrated in the article. It depicts the Infant Jesus with just the ox and ass without Shepherds, Magi or even Joseph and Mary! [Click here to return to text.]

(2) The hills around Bethlehem were littered with caves, which frequently sheltered livestock. St. Justin Martyr, a native of Samaria, wrote about the year 150AD that Jesus was born in a cave: “But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger.” [Click here to return to text.]

Notes on the images:

Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, Masaccio, The Brancacci Chapel, Church of Santa Maria del Carmine, Florence, 1426-1427. Photograph taken from here.

St. Philip's Church, Engraver: A.B. Johnson, c. 1850 (?). Image found here.

St. Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham. Photo copyright Alaister Carew-Cox. For more information on Seraphim Press's publications and worthy projects, can be found here and here.

The Nativity, Edward Burne-Jones, St. Philip's Cathedral, Birmingham. Photo copyright Alaister Carew-Cox.

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