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Ox, ass, and shepherds explained

17 December 2021

Sarah Drummond explores the meaning behind nativity scenes

Meister Francke, The Nativity, c.1426, tempera and oil on oak, Kunsthalle, Hamburg. This is a panel of an altarpiece commissioned in Hamburg by the Society of Merchants trading with England, originally in the former Dominican Church of St John, in Hamburg, where Meister Francke was a friar. Joseph is absent; in the background up the hill we see the annunciation to the shepherds. More images below and in the gallery

Meister Francke, The Nativity, c.1426, tempera and oil on oak, Kunsthalle, Hamburg. This is a panel of an altarpiece commissioned in Hamburg by the So...

THE birth of Christ lies at the heart of the Christian mystery. The Second Person of the Trinity appears on earth, born of the Virgin Mary, of God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit, born in order to redeem mankind. From a tender age, we recognise nativity images: the newborn Christ-child in a manger, Mary, Joseph, the ox and the ass, the shepherds, the Magi, the angels, the star.

We are so familiar with the scene that we are in danger of failing to see, to wonder, to question, and to ponder. Blind to allegory and symbol (“because there was no room for them in the inn”), we forgo the sense of the sacred.

We forget that all nativity scenes refer to rebirth in the spiritual sense, and that the function of religion is to reveal higher mysteries. St Augustine’s words resound: “What does it avail me that this birth is always happening, if it does not happen in me?”

From the beginning, the ox and the ass are almost always present in scenes of Christ’s nativity. These attendant beasts of burden, silent witnesses, appear as mythological foster parents. The earliest known images of the nativity appear on sarcophagi of the fourth century.

In the pediment on the lid of one of them, we see the Christ-child lying in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, overseen by the accompanying ox and ass. The sarcophagus is now incorporated in the pulpit of Sant’Ambrogio, in Milan.

Yet the ox and ass are not mentioned in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke (the only two canonical Gospels to tell the story of the nativity), although Luke (2.7) reports that Mary wrapped her son in swaddling clothes and “laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” — and certainly a manger suggests animals.

Ancient images depicting the ox and the ass watching over Christ’s crib are sometimes linked with a scene showing the adoration of the Magi, who pay homage to the Christ-child as he sits enthroned on the Virgin’s lap.

The juxtaposition of the two events acts as a vibrant reminder that the feast of the Epiphany — the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, represented by the Magi — on 6 January, originally encompassed the feast of the nativity (moved to 25 December c.350).

 Giotto, frescoThe Nativity in the Arena Chapel, Padua, c.1305. The Virgin bends tenderly towards the swaddled Christ-child, focusing all her attention on him. She is helped by an attendant, perhaps a midwife; at the side, the shepherds are depicted, while Joseph sits apart, pondering

THE manger-crib itself appears in a variety of forms — box-like, or made of brick, wood, stone, or wattled basketwork (evoking associations with the finding of Moses). The ox and ass may be depicted at either end of the manger, or standing together, or behind the crib in arched openings.

Perhaps they represent our own animal instincts. They are there, sometimes breathing warmth, sometimes eating straw or hay, often watching and vigilant: for example, in Giotto’s fresco in Assisi.

We are so accustomed to seeing the ox and the ass in nativity scenes that we almost fail to wonder: why are the ox and the ass deemed to be vital to the event? What is their significance? What is the origin of this iconography? Why were these beasts so deeply embedded in the psyche of Christians from the beginning?

We know that, at the time when the sarcophagi were made, at the tail end of the Roman empire, the Christian faithful — still very much a small minority — continued by inheritance to be steeped in both the Old Testament tradition of the Jews, and in Roman mythology and its practices and rituals.

Christians of the third and fourth centuries were exploring ways to express the mystery and significance of their religious faith, searching for ways to convey the redemption of mankind brought about by the birth of the Saviour.

The ox — often in the form of a bull — is an ancient symbol of sacrifice, a powerful beast, representing strength, held sacred in many traditions, myths, and cultures (Egyptian, Assyrian, Sumerian, Greek, and others), and, in all probability, some of the rituals and practices continued to take place at the time of Christ’s birth.

The text of the prophet Isaiah contains many references to the expected Messiah: “The ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib,” and continues: “but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood” (Isaiah 1.3).

Reading the Old and New Testaments in the light of one another, patristic commentators pinpointed references to the Messiah and to the ox and the ass, and reminded us that Mosaic law states: “Thou shall not plough with an ox and an ass yoked together.”

Exegesis explains the yoking of “clean” and “unclean”. Symbolically, the joining of extremes (represented by the nativity animals), the union of the spiritual and corporal, the clean and unclean, the inside and outside, and, ultimately, the uncreated and the created, can be accomplished only by Christ, the incarnation, and the logos in the person of Jesus Christ.

The ox and ass were associated with the words of the prophet Habakkuk in the Septuagint: “In the midst of two living creatures you will be recognised.”

 Gentile da Fabriano, nativity scene in the predella of The Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece, 1423, originally in the Strozzi family chapel in Santa Trinità, Florence, tempera on panel, Uffizi, Florence. The Christ-child lies on the ground surrounded by mysterious light, in front of a cave where the ox and ass are shown gazing protectively at the divine Child. Mary kneels beside the newborn, midwives sit to the side, Joseph sleeps in the foreground, and in the background shepherds see the angel

WE CAN wonder why the presence of a shepherd was considered to be essential at the Christ-child’s manger. Why did Christians of the fourth century (and perhaps earlier) choose to include a shepherd in their search for imagery to evoke the mystery of the nativity?

The figure of the shepherd is deeply embedded in the human psyche, and crops up in images and legends since time immemorial in widely different cultures and traditions.

Yet the shepherd archetype remains essentially the same, representing watchfulness and care. His job is to keep watch, to round up and take care of the sheep that stray and are endangered — a powerful allegory of our own disordered, sometimes chaotic, inner lives, invaded by thoughts that wander.

The quietening of the mind is seen as an essential primary step, in all traditions, towards finding and maintaining a state of inner harmony.

To Christians, the image of the shepherd inevitably connects us with Christ’s words “I am the good shepherd” (John 10.11), and with it the parable of the lost sheep. The Gospels, like the Old Testament, are littered with references to shepherds and sheep. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep (John 10.11); and Psalm 23 famously claims “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.”

The lamb is an ancient symbol of sacrifice, as we are reminded in the 12th-century mosaics in Monreale Cathedral, in Sicily, depicting Noah and his family offering the sacrificial victim over the fire below the altar. David, Moses, Abraham, Jacob, and others were all described as shepherds. The Gospels also warn us, however, against false shepherds (John 10.1-5) who are but thieves and robbers, and to “beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravening wolves”.

While in icons the shepherds are depicted on a mountainside, in Western images they are often shown on a rock-strewn hillside. Both representations can be interpreted in the ancient language of allegory as on a higher level.

In the darkness of the winter solstice, the Light appears, and with it there is a welcome sense of hope, of redemption. Sometimes, we see the shepherd with his hand raised — a gesture that may be expressing joy, awe, or salutation.

We observe that the shepherd is astonished: what is witnessed is beyond his understanding, and yet he is irresistibly attracted by the Light, pointing unwaveringly up to the heavens as he listens to the angel’s message and the “heavenly host praising God”.

The shepherds respond instantly to this revelation, and, together, the companions follow the summons, guided by the Light to the place of the nativity: “And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord has made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in a manger” (Luke 2.16).

This annunciation event is also very often included in nativity scenes, although sometimes scarcely visible, taking place in the background or at the side of the image.

We are shown the shepherds’ arrival at the manger accompanied by sheep, and sometimes a dog, presenting gifts (a lamb, flowers). We witness their rural simplicity and poverty in impoverished, well-worn clothing. Humble, close to nature, close to the earth, close to instinct and animal life — all this acts as a reminder that folklore and ancient wisdom go hand in hand.

These are images and edited extracts from
Divine Love: The art of the nativity by Sarah Drummond, published by Unicorn at £25 (Church Times Bookshop £22.50); 978-1-913491-86-4.

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