Images of the Nativity

Anne Stricherz

5 Beautiful Images of the Nativity to Help your Prayer Life

I love it when I discover that what I am already doing is a form of prayer—or can be, with just a little intention or mindfulness.

Larry Gillick, SJ—a regular contributor for “Online Ministries” (a website that includes daily reflections on readings for Mass, online retreats, tips for prayer and spiritual growth out of Creighton University)—named one simple spiritual discipline for the season of Advent and the season of Christmas.

He said

It is helpful to our spiritual life to spend more than a glancing moment in our reading of Christmas cards we are receiving, with their notes of good wishes both printed and handwritten. It is good for our souls also to spend time with the pictures or drawings on those cards and notes. We look quickly at the signature. Do that first, as is natural, and then again after spending time quietly with the card. It will become a prayer and a preparation for the Advent Liturgy. We can pray with what the card is saying in print as well as in picture. We as well, can pray with the 'who' is behind the signature.”

It seems that Shutterfly makes the majority of the cards I receive today. It’s a rare card that contains a personal note, let alone a signature. While I do enjoy seeing pictures of family and friends, I miss the image and message that folks once chose as their way to send seasonal greetings. The religious art that draws from Christmas is rich in symbolic imagery, the usage of light and its inclination toward beauty. 

Every year, I save the cards that have special meaning for me. I have noticed that a significant number of them feature the Nativity of Our Lord.  It’s a poignant image for the season, because it depicts who and what we celebrate. Nativity scenes often feature more than a child wrapped in swaddling clothes. The Magi, shepherds, angels, animals and sometimes-small children visit Him. I am reminded through the Nativity that God is with us: Emmanuel.

Here are 5 beautiful images of the nativity to help your prayer life.  I have prayed with these images, thanks to seasonal greetings sent from friends and family, far and wide. Take a moment in this holy season to do the same.

1. Adoration of the Child by Gherardo delle Notti

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I had the good fortune of spending Easter 2010 in Italy. My friends and I traveled to Rome, Assisi and Florence where we visited innumerous churches and art museums. At the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, I saw the “Adoration of the Child” by Gherardo delle Notti. Stunned by its simple beauty, my friend had the foresight to purchase Christmas cards featuring this painting six months in advance of the holiday. I’m glad she did, as I continue to marvel at this work of art.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus says “I am the light of the world.” Delle Notti’s painting proclaims that truth as the light emanates from the Christ child, who lies in the manger. Two young shepherd boys gaze upon Him with joy. One, with arms crossed, evokes the message: Behold the Lamb of God. To me, “Adoration of the Child” affirms, without words, that it was a holy night.

2. Visit of the Magi by Paul Beichner

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This image was a block print created by Holy Cross priest and artist Paul Beichner, CSC. I love that his religious community had the forethought to use this remarkable artwork to accompany the Christmas message from the Priests and Brothers of Holy Cross.

When I first saw the “Visit of the Magi,” I thought of the imagery used by “The Catholic Worker” and the popular wood-cutting, “The Christ of the Bread Lines” by Fritz Eichenberg. Such artwork conveys the struggle and the labor that has forever confronted humanity. Surely, Christ’s birth was no different.  And, the magi traveled far and wide to make this holiest of visits. They too may have been tired and weary. But, in the encounter of Beichner’s art, I remember and pray for those whom both honor the Christ child and find rest in Him too.  

3. The Nativity by John Singleton Copley

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The United States Post Office offers quite a variety of stamps to commemorate the holiday season. It seems that each year offers a new rendition of a religious stamp featuring the Madonna and child. However, some years feature a nativity scene instead. 

One that speaks to America’s history is the neoclassical painting, “The Nativity” by John Singleton Copley. As noted by the National Gallery of Art, “Copley, the foremost artist in colonial America, was virtually self-taught as a portraitist. By meticulously recording details, he created powerful characterizations of narrative scenes from history.” 

Although, I first encountered this portrait through a card, I thought it poignant that it was chosen for the Christmas stamp in 1976. I believe it was chosen because it conveys as much through symbolic imagery as it does through the depiction of those present at Christ’s birth. Mary, adorned in white—the color of purity—keeps her gaze upon her first born son. The dog—a symbol of fidelity, looks at its master, a lowly shepherd. And Saint Joseph, who sits protectively over his wife, is the one who greets those who seek to visit the Christ child. The rich narrative of the Nativity has found a match in Copley’s rendition of it. 


4. The Nativity with the Infant Saint John by Piero di Cosimo

blog image We know that Jesus was born into the House of David. The readings pay careful attention to his lineage and to the unique role of his cousin, John the Baptist. The son of Elizabeth and Zachariah, John prepared the way, and this painting features him at the birth of our Lord. On display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, their website offers information and insights worth considering 

The tondo, or circular painting, enjoyed remarkable popularity in Renaissance Florence and was a specialty of Piero di Cosimo. His surviving examples of the type accommodate rich narratives within their round formats, which signify eternity, divinity, and cosmic harmony. The National Gallery’s Nativity, among the largest of Piero’s roundels, was likely intended for devotional use in a private palace or in the more public setting of a local confraternity or guildhall. Mary kneels in adoration of the infant Christ, who rests on a blue mantle, his head supported by a pillow of wheat that evokes the Eucharist. Also present to venerate the incarnate Jesus are an angel and the young John the Baptist, who clutches a reed cross and regards the Christ child with touching solemnity. Piero’s narrative vision encompasses details sublime and mundane, from the symbolic rose and bud, rocks, and dove beside Christ to the half-ruined stable in the background with its niche of kitchen utensils. Jesus’s father, Joseph, descends the building’s wooden stairs in the cautious manner of an aged man. He is attended by angels bearing flowering branches to celebrate the Child’s birth. In the distance at left, the three Magi traverse a serene landscape whose rolling contours perfectly complement the tondo’s shape." (National Gallery of Art)

I am extremely grateful for the relationship I have with several of my cousins. I have an older brother and a younger sister; I love both of my siblings. But, the familial connection with my cousins is unique, and one for which I offer thanksgiving. I would send a Christmas card to them with this very image! Maybe I should…​


5. Your Parish Nativity Scene

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One of most prayerful and important Nativity scenes to visit in person and in prayer is the one that your parish will offer inside your church, often at a side altar. Children love to take a long look upon one of the most important narratives in world history. Let their child-like wonder inspire your meditation and appreciation for this holy team of year.

Christmas Blessings!

What is your favorite image of the nativity?