Why should halo

Christmas - How Joseph came to a halo and ox and donkey at the manger

How Joseph came to a halo and ox and donkey at the manger

With their depictions of the birth of Jesus, artists often convey theological content that is not readily recognizable. A classic example is the Sarner Christmas picture.

When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, «Mary gave birth to her son. She wrapped him in diapers and put him in a crib because there was no room for her in the inn ». Not a word that ox and donkey were lying at the manger! They are mentioned for the first time in a childhood gospel of the pseudo-Matthew, probably written in the 7th century: “In the manger, the ox and donkey also kneeled and worshiped the baby Jesus. Thus the word of the prophet Isaiah was fulfilled: the ox knows its owner and the donkey its master's manger. " In Isaiah the two animals symbolize the people of Israel led by God. The author of the Gospel of Childhood, however, reinterprets the text; it indicates that this God took human form in Jesus.

Palace or stable?

The mention of a nativity scene has prompted countless artists to choose a stable as the backdrop for Mary's birth. Others relocate the event to a dilapidated palace with an attached Koben. These are the ruins of King David's palace. This was intended to illustrate the replacement of the Old by the New Testament. These representations go back to a saying of the prophet Amos: «On that day I will set up the crumbled hut of David again and mend its cracks. I'll straighten up their ruins and restore everything. "

It may be astonishing that the baby Jesus sometimes lies naked on a cloth on the floor. This is due to a vision of St. Birgitta of Sweden (1303–1373): «In a single moment, Mary gave birth to her son, who emanated such an inexpressible radiance that the sun could not be compared with it. But I immediately saw the child lying on the floor, naked and clearly shining. "

The radiance that surrounds the child may not only be due to Birgitta's vision, but also to the prophet Malachi, who dreams that one day “the sun of righteousness” will rise over Israel, a promise that has been made since early Christianity Jesus was related.

The Joseph doubt

In some medieval Christmas pictures, Josef gives the impression that the whole thing does not affect him at all.

This appearance is deceptive. Joseph is not absent; he ponders. Certain concerns, which, according to the Gospel of Matthew, had haunted him even before Jesus was born, seem to stir again in his heart. Was it perhaps not God after all, but a man he did not know who had his hand (and not only that) in the game when his bride became pregnant? The motif of the Joseph's doubt - the technical term - increasingly aroused offense among church leaders, which is why it became increasingly rare and almost completely disappeared at the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries.

The fact that the legal father of Jesus often does not wear a halo in medieval pictures is due to the fact that his liturgical feast day was only introduced in the 15th century. Since then, he has almost always appeared with a nimbus. Like countless others, the Sarner Christmas picture shown here by an unknown master from the 15th century shows a Madonna adoring the Child Jesus. It is also an innovation. Originally, the artists had no qualms about portraying Maria as a weary woman who had recently given birth. In the late Middle Ages, theologians believed that Mary was born without pain. This idea did not go well with the assumption that she needed to be nursed after giving birth. Since the 15th and 16th centuries at the latest, Maria has therefore no longer been in childbed, but kneels in devotion in front of the crib child.

The importance of Mary's loose hair

In most of the Christmas pictures, Maria does not wear a headscarf. As can be seen from numerous profane portraits, it was common in the late Middle Ages and early modern times in Nordic countries for married women to cover their head of hair. When the painters of the time show Mary without a headscarf after her birth, they indicate that she was only engaged to Joseph and that she is still a virgin.

* Josef Imbach (* 1945) is a theologian and author of numerous books. Most recently he published: «The truth of the Bible. Contradictions, miracles and other secrets », Theological Publishing House, Zurich 2020.