Skip to Main Content

The Christmas Story in Art

This horizontal painting is made up of three parts: in the center square panel, a woman reclines under a wooden shelter set into a rocky cave, which is surrounded by angels, and narrower wings to either side are each occupied by a standing man. All the people have pale skin, which is tinged with faint green. The three panels are joined with a gold frame, and the gold background behind the central scene and the men in the side panels are covered with a noticeable network of cracks. In the central panel, a cobalt-blue robe nearly envelopes the reclining woman’s body; this is Mary. It covers her head and falls open where she crosses her wrists over her chest to show a pink garment underneath. A flat gold halo encircles her head ,and her body is surrounded by a field of crimson red, almost like an aura. She rests under a wooden structure with a pitched roof, which is surrounded by craggy, barren rock. A swaddled infant lies in a rectangular, tray-like manger. The infant’s head is also surrounded by a gold halo. Fine gold rays emanate down into the structure from a star just above the peak of the roof. A bull and a donkey look down at the baby from the far side of the manger. The interior of the structure behind them is black. In a smaller scale, two women wash a haloed infant in a tub in front of the rocky cave near the lower left corner of this panel. A man with a white beard and hair sits to our left of Mary, holding a pink cloak at his throat and looking toward the infant. Above and around the rocks, seven winged and haloed angels cluster on each side. One angel to the right presents a scroll with black writing to two men accompanied by a dog and several sheep in the lower right. The man in the panel to the left, Isaiah, has a gray beard and long, wavy hair, and he wears a lilac-purple cloak draped over a coral-orange robe. In his right hand, on our left, he holds an unfurled scroll with large black lettering. His other hand is raised with one finger pointing upward. He looks to our left, away from the central scene. On the right, Ezekiel, echoes Isaiah's pose. Ezekiel holds an open scroll with his left hand, on our right, and his other hand is raised. He also wears a coral-colored robe, but his is overlaid with a blue cloak. His receding hair is short and brown, as is his beard. Like Isaiah, he takes up most of the height of the panel and gazes to our left, toward the central panel.

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, 1308-1311, tempera on single poplar panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.8

1 of 14
This nearly square painting is visually divided into three vertical zones, with a pergola-like structure occupied by two people at the center taking up the most space, and narrower scenes with more people to either side. All the people have light, peachy skin tinged in some areas with pale green. The central structure has a shallow roof and several types of arched openings—some rounded and some pointed, all of different sizes. A winged angel to the left under the structure has curly blond hair and wears a shell-pink, floor-length robe. A seated woman to our right wears a lapis-blue dress and a white head covering. She sits with her forearms crossed over her chest, her hands in front of her shoulders. Both have plate-like, gold halos. Two arched openings at the back of the structure lead into rooms beyond. In the left quarter of the painting, a nude man and woman are pushed through an arched gateway by a winged angel with a gold halo. A bearded, haloed man looks down from a gold cloud above. Forest-green trees line the garden at the back and flowers and rabbits fill the space around the people’s feet. To our right, a balding, bearded man warms his hands at a fire in a room beyond the central structure. He wears rose pink and has a gold halo.

Giovanni di Paolo, The Annunciation and Expulsion from Paradise, c. 1435, tempera on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.223

2 of 14
A winged angel with arms crossed kneels across from a young woman sitting and holding a book, both under an archway in a paneled room in this vertical painting. They both have pale, yellow-toned skin, blond hair, and flat, gold halos. They also have golden brown eyes, long, straight noses, smooth cheeks, and their pale, pink lips are closed. To our right, the woman sits in a throne-like chair with her body facing our left. Her head tilts down, and she looks toward the angel under lowered lids. Her hair is pulled back under the neck of the lapis-blue cloak she wears over a crimson-red dress. The dress and cloak are trimmed with gold, and a there is a gold starburst on the cloak over her left shoulder, closer to us. She holds her other hand up near that shoulder with her fingertips brushing her chest. With her other hand, she holds open the pages of a small book in her lap, so her fingers overlap some of the words. The entire Latin inscription would read, “virgo concipiet et pariet filium et vocabitur nomen eius emmanuel butirum et mel come dit ut fiat reprobare.” A slender, bone-white column separates her from the angel across from her, along the left edge of the painting. The angel has curly, shoulder-length hair and wears a robe with a gold, floral pattern against a burgundy-red background. Long, golden wings emerge from the shoulder blades and extend off the side of the composition. An open archway just beyond the angel is filled with streaks of flax yellow and burnt orange, possibly representing flames. Some of the walls in the room around the pair are pale olive green and other areas are darker spruce green. There are bands of coral-pink molding and inset panels of patterned mosaics. The flat ceiling of the space immediately over the pair is decorated with checkerboard panels in navy blue, hunter green, brown, and brick red. Gold lines create a ray coming from the ceiling toward the woman. At the back of the space, beyond the column separating the woman and angel, the room extends into an alcove with an arched hallway painted with gold stars against a midnight-blue background. Double doors open at the back of the alcove onto a room with a pale-yellow curtain with a mesh-like trim. We see the pair as if through a stone archway that lines the top and sides of the composition. The upper corners are filled with leafy decorations, as if carved into the stone.

Masolino da Panicale, The Annunciation, c. 1423/1424, tempera (and possibly oil glazes) on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.16

3 of 14
Dozens of people line up around a shed-like structure and around stone ruins to kneel before a woman and baby at the lower center of this circular painting. All the people have pale skin. The crowd gathers along a pathway that winds around a rocky mountain at the top middle of the composition. Most of the people are on foot but a few ride horses or camels. The line of people curves around and through an arched opening in a stone ruin to our left. Sitting at the center of the painting, behind the woman and baby, Mary and Jesus, the structure is open at the front and has a triangular pitched roof. Some of the people, including the three closest to Mary and Jesus, wear elegant, gold-trimmed clothing. Others wear simple tunics, and several people standing along the ruins in the middle distance wear only white loincloths. Ages of the people range from young and cleanshaven to older and bearded. Their costumes are mostly pale yellow, coral orange, crimson red, shell pink, or sky blue. Some people raise their heads and hands while others hold hands to their chests and close their eyes. Mary wears a pale blue robe over a blush-pink dress. Jesus is nude and an older man standing nearby wears an apricot-colored robe over a blue tunic. The older man, Mary, and Jesus have gold halos. A peacock and two other birds stand on the roof of the manger, which shelters an ox, ass, and horses.

Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440/1460, tempera on poplar panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1952.2.2

4 of 14
About three dozen people gather in a grassy field to either side of a crumbling structure to kneel and pray before a woman and baby in the center of this horizontal painting. The woman, Mary, and baby, Jesus, have smooth, pale skin while the others have light or tanned skin. The structure has sand-colored stone pillars, a wooden triangular, pitched roof, and a straw floor. Mary, who has an elongated torso, sits facing us with her knees apart. She wears an azure-blue robe over a rose-pink dress. A shell-pink veil covers her head and body. Jesus sits on her left knee, his pudgy body angled to our left. He is nude except for a transparent cloth wrapped over one shoulder and the opposite hip. Mary’s left hand braces his torso. On Mary’s right, our left, Joseph, an older man, stands facing us. He clasps his hands at his chest and leans on a long stick. He has wrinkled skin, long, gray curly hair, and a full beard. Both Mary and Joseph tilt their heads to their right, our left, as they look down at Jesus. Joseph wears a golden yellow robe over a blue tunic. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus have faint gold halos. Behind them, a brown cow and gray donkey rest on the straw. People closest to Mary and Jesus kneel and bow their heads while the people to the left and right sides mostly stand. Three men kneeling closest to Mary and Jesus offer gifts, including a bronze vessel and a gold jar. One man has long dark brown hair and a beard, and wears a gold crown. Another man is bald with long gray hair and beard, while the third is cleanshaven with shoulder-length brown hair. These men wear robes in powder blue, carnation pink, or celery green with delicate silver and gold embelishments. Others in the crowd range in age from young and cleanshaven to older and bearded. They wear robes and tunics in shades of raspberry pink, butterscotch yellow, lapis blue, plum purple, or forest green. Several horses, their coats white or cinnamon brown, stand among the crowd, a few with riders. To our right, one horse rears its head and two others stand facing each other. Beyond the crowd, grassy green meadows and hills dotted with trees lead back to the horizon. A pale blue sky fills the top third of the composition.

Sandro Botticelli, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1478/1482, tempera and oil on poplar panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.22

5 of 14
Four people with pale skin are gathered to our right in a landscape, their heads bowed down toward an infant who lies on a white cloth on the ground in this horizontal painting. The nude baby has a rounded belly, chubby limbs, and short blond hair. To our right and near the edge of the panel, a woman kneels with her hands in prayer, looking toward the baby so she faces our left in profile. She wears a lapis-blue robe over a rose-pink dress, and a white cloth covers her head and shoulders. Behind her and to our left, a man with a white beard, wearing a golden yellow robe, sits or kneels next to a rock at the mouth of a cave cut into a rocky outcropping that extends off the top of the composition. To the left of the baby and at the center of the foreground, a pair of men wear tattered clothing and hold shepherd’s staffs. The man closer to us kneels with his hands pressed together in prayer as the man behind him bends his knee as if to kneel. The landscape recedes deep into the distance on the left half of the painting with a winding river, houses and other buildings, grassy hills, and mountains beneath a blue sky. A small winged angel wearing white looks down on the scene from the upper left corner.

Giorgione, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505/1510, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.289

6 of 14
Close to us, a bearded, balding man leads a donkey carrying a woman and child to our right against a hilly landscape in this horizontal painting. All three people have pale, peachy skin and halos. The man has a gray beard and hair, and wears a royal-blue tunic under a ruby-red robe. He leans on a walking stick and looks back at the donkey. The woman riding the donkey wears a blue and gold brocade-like cloak covering her head and body. She has a straight nose, small pink lips, and she looks toward the infant she holds close to her body. The baby wears a white garment and reaches for the woman’s face with one hand as he turns to look over his shoulder toward us. The path they walk on is lined with grass and detailed plants. A river runs parallel to the path a short distance away. The horizon line comes about two-thirds of the way up the painting is lined with green trees, blue mountains, and a few buildings to our left. Wispy white clouds sweep across an azure-blue sky streaked with peach near the horizon.

Vittore Carpaccio, The Flight into Egypt, c. 1515, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.28

7 of 14
Two women stand clasping hands between two seated men, all against a deep landscape with hills and a town in this nearly square painting. Dozens of people are gathered in the town to our right, and several cluster in front of a building to our left. All the people have pale, peachy skin. Close to us, the two women both have translucent, plate-like halos. They stand with their bodies angled toward each other, and they look at each other. The woman to our left, Mary, has smooth skin with a delicate profile. She wears a gold-edged, ultramarine-blue robe lined with forest green over a long-sleeved, ruby-red dress. Sandaled toes peek under the hem. An eggshell-white and gold scarf drapes over her blond hair, which is pulled back, and over her shoulders. Leaning toward her companion, Mary gazes directly into the eyes of the older woman, Elizabeth. They clasp their right hands, and Mary touches Elizabeth’s shoulder. They stand close together, so only a sliver of the background landscape is visible between their cloaks. Elizabeth wears a maroon-red dress mostly covered by a wine-red cloak that wraps around her body. Her opaque, white scarf drapes over her head and ties loosely on her chest. Her free, left hand is raised, the palm facing Mary. The women stand on a slightly raised platform as the elderly men sit on either side, their bodies angled toward the women. Both men have faint, barely visible halos floating over their balding heads. They have fringes of gray hair and long, gray beards. Their foreheads are deeply lined with wrinkles, and they look down long, straight noses at their laps. To our left, the man wears a scarlet-red cloak over a harvest-yellow garment with gray sleeves. He hunches over a book in his lap. Three gold balls lie next to him, near Mary’s feet. On our right, the second man wears black, round spectacles perched on his nose. The hood of his black robe lies across his shoulders, over an olive-green cape. The cape has gold trim, and the underside is scarlet red. He writes on a narrow piece of parchment with a quill on a closed, blue-covered book. He braces the book and an ink pot with one hand, and a leather pouch hangs from a cord in that hand. At his feet lie an iron-colored bell, a wooden cane, and a brown book. A single sprig of garnet-red flowers lies on the stone floor between the two men. Beyond the four people, the sand-colored land dips down between the town to our right and the building to our left. Dozens of women holding babies struggle against men with swords on a platform in the town. Four people look on from windows above, and buildings continue into the distance along high, steep hills. One of the buildings there is topped by a cross, and the side of that structure is painted with a scene showing a kneeling, winged angel holding a white lily toward a woman dressed in green, who kneels and crosses her arms over her chest. To our left and deep in the shadow cast by a tall building there, a woman and several men gather and some kneel around a baby. Beyond, the land extends to body of vivid blue water, which leads back to a pale blue mountain in the deep distance. A few puffy clouds float across the sky above, which deepens from powder blue along the top edge to nearly white along the horizon.

Piero di Cosimo, The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot, c. 1489/1490, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.361

8 of 14
At the base of a steep, grassy hill, five shepherds kneel, sit, and recline around and among two cows, several sheep, a goat, and a dog in the lower half of this painting, while a winged angel appears in a golden shaft of light in the upper half of this vertical painting. All the people have pale skin. One brown cow spans most of the composition along the bottom, its head facing our left. In the lower left corner, closest to us, a man smoking a long pipe reclines against a tangerine-orange cloth. He wears a round, brimmed cap, a loose white shirt, tattered gray, knee-length pants, and gray cloth wrapped around his shins above bare feet. He leans on his right elbow and crosses his ankles, as he looks to our right in profile. Next to him, to our right, a woman kneels with her body angled away from us to our right. She bends over, perhaps to milk the cow in front of her with the pail sitting next to her, and she looks back to our left. Her chestnut-brown hair is pulled up and braided or coiled. Her rose-pink dress and the white blouse under it fall off her right shoulder. A slate-gray cloak or scarf wraps around her waist and we see the bottom of one bare foot. On the opposite side of the cow, near its head, a young boy angled to our right, with straight brown hair falling down to his eyebrows, looks down at the animal. Most of his face is in shadow but light catches the tip of his nose and the front of one cheek. To our right, along the edge of the painting, behind the rump of the cow and among the shadows, another young boy is seen from the chest up. He wears with a wide-brimmed, brown hat and reaches his right arm across his body as he looks to our left, toward the streak of light. The head of a second cow stands behind him, only the head visible. The steep, grassy hill rises sharply behind this group and cows.The fifth person leans into the scene from our left, above the reclining man on the orange cloth. He has short brown hair and beard, and a slightly hooked nose. Wearing a rose-pink garment, he looks up at the angel with his right hand shielding his face. A tree trunk rises along the left edge of the painting beyond that man. A dog, sheep, and a goat are tucked in and around the cows. Golden light pours down onto the man in pink from past the angel in the bank of clouds above. Against a night sky with navy-blue clouds, gold and white rays emanate from the parted clouds beyond the angel. Kneeling on a dark, fern-green cloud, the angel leans forward and down, and points down at the shepherd wearing pink with one hand and up with the other. The angel has silvery-gray wings and wears a gray robe. Blond curls lift as if in a breeze. In the landscape below, topaz and aquamarine-blue forms could be mountains or surging waves.

Jacopo Bassano, The Annunciation to the Shepherds, probably 1555/1560, oil on canvas, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1939.1.126

9 of 14

Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1530s, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.86

10 of 14
A man, woman, and four winged angels gather and kneel around a nude infant lying on the ground under a stone arched opening set in front of a landscape in this vertical painting. All of the people have pale white or lightly tanned skin. To our left, the woman wears gold-edged, royal-blue robes and has long, curly brown hair. The baby lies on the hem of her robe, his body facing her. An older, balding and bearded man kneels to the right, leaning on a walking stick. He wears a red garment under a green robe, and he holds a hat in his hands as he gazes at the baby. About a third the size of the man and woman, two of the angels kneel between the man and woman and another pair kneel to our left of the woman, seeming close to us. The angels wear colorful gold, pink, red, or yellow robes and all have long wavy blond hair. Their hands touch in prayer and all look down toward the baby. The people are sheltered in front of a crumbling stone wall under a wooden structure. To our left, a cow and donkey are penned in a stable. Two pairs of men stand near or lean on the other side of the rock wall that encloses the scene. A landscape with green rolling hills and a distant town with towers and buildings fills the background beneath a clear blue sky. A triangular structure made of wood beams is framed within the carved archway, which seems to separate us from the space of the painting. The face of the arch looks like it is carved with a nude man atop a column to the left and a similar woman to the right, and with miniature scenes stacked on tiny platforms curving upward to the apex of the arch.

Petrus Christus, The Nativity, c. 1450, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.40

11 of 14

Adriaen Isenbrant, The Adoration of the Shepherds, probably 1520/1540, oil on panel, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund, 1978.46.1

12 of 14
A pale, light-skinned woman holding a baby sits to our left in front of stone ruins as one man kneels and two men stand to our right in front of a landscape in this vertical painting. The woman wears a long, navy-blue coat trimmed in gold, and sits with her body angled to our right. Her light brown hair is parted in the middle and covered by the hood of her robe. She lowers her eyes toward a pale, naked, baby boy with curly blond hair, who leans back against her on a white cloth on her lap. She supports the baby’s side with her right hand and her left caresses his head. A man wearing a golden turban-like cap and a crimson-red, voluminous robe lined with white kneels on the dirt ground in front of the baby, and looks down and off to the side with dark eyes. The man has pale skin, a hooked nose, and jowls. A sword with a gold hilt hangs at his side and a round, white shield is slung over his shoulder. He holds a golden box open toward the baby. Two more men stand behind him. Cut off by the edge of the panel, the man on our right has brown skin, a flat nose, full, projecting lips, and he faces our left in profile. He wears a golden crown on short brown hair, and a large, teardrop-shaped pearl hangs from the ear we can see. His turquoise-blue robe is shaded with petal-pink in the shadows in the folds, and it partially covers a gold chain. He holds a gold-encrusted, jeweled orb in his hands. Beyond him, to our left, a man with pale, peach-colored skin stands facing and looking at us. He has a brown beard and his curly hair is covered by a crown set into a crimson-red, jeweled hat. He wears a gold, brocade robe over a navy-blue garment, and a large jewel pendant hangs from a thick gold chain around his neck. He points with a white gloved hand toward the woman and baby and, in his other, holds a gold vessel with a stem and foot like a wine glass. Behind the woman and to our left, a horned ox looks out toward us from under an arch in the stone ruins. Trees grow in the background and above, a golden star is encircled with bands of gold and blue, with rays extending toward the scene below. Nearby, a white and gray bird perches on the top of the ruins. In the background behind the men, two pairs of men on horseback and one man attending to one of the horses gather in a grassy landscape below a pale blue sky. The pair to our left have pale skin and the pair to our right have brown skin.

Juan de Flandes, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1508/1519, oil on panel, Samuel H. Kress Collection, 1961.9.24

13 of 14
Against a deep, hilly landscape, a young woman sits facing us on a rocky ledge with a small child in her lap in this square painting. The woman and child, Mary and Jesus, both have pale skin and blond hair. Mary wears a cobalt-blue gown over a coral-pink undergarment that peeks out from under the bottom hem and at her cuffs. A paler blue mantle is draped over the back of her head and falls to cover her shoulders and body. A sheer white veil covers her hair and forehead. Jesus wears a sheer white, loose, long-sleeved tunic. Both gaze downward to the bunch of green grapes Mary holds delicately in her left hand, to our right. Jesus reaches forward with both hands to pluck some fruit as Mary supports his body with her other hand. An oval shaped, woven basket with a lid sits on the ground next to Mary’s feet. The gray, rocky outcropping on which they sit is blanketed with straw-colored moss or other growth. A small clearing behind the pair is framed by trees on either side. The trees have tall, slender trunks speckled with light gray patches and canopies of olive and celery-green leaves. To our left and beyond the outcropping, a gray donkey stands behind a tree, nibbling on some grasses at the edge of the outcropping. To our right, in the middle distance, a pale-skinned, bearded man stands and arches back with a long stick raised overhead, as if about to strike the tree in front of him. Beyond him and about two-thirds of the way up the panel, a row of dark green shrubbery separates the clearing from rolling blue hills in the distance.

Gerard David, The Rest on the Flight into Egypt, c. 1510, oil on panel, Andrew W. Mellon Collection, 1937.1.43

14 of 14