Martin Schongauer, The Little Nativity, single-sheet engraving. Munich, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Inv. Nr. 67333.

by Caitlyn Gutierrez

Figure 1 Martin Schongauer, Nativity, 1480

Figure 1 Martin Schongauer, Nativity, 1480

Figure 2 Martin Schongauer, Madonna and Child in Garden, ca. 1480

Figure 2 Martin Schongauer, Madonna and Child in Garden, ca. 1480

Figure 3 Chartres, Nativity Window, 12th century

Figure 3 Chartres, Nativity Window, 12th century

Figure 4 Albrecht Dürer, Nativity, ca. 1509

Figure 4 Albrecht Dürer, Nativity, ca. 1509

The Little Nativity is a devotional engraving by Martin Schongauer depicting the biblical scene of Jesus’s birth, known as the Nativity.[1] In fifteenth century Germany, when this image was made, devotional works of art were very prominent. Prints, like this engraving, were an effective means of spreading teachings and religious practices among people of all social classes, especially the poor and uneducated, because a single engraved plate could cheaply produce many copies.[2]  Because prints like Schongauer’s Little Nativity addressed viewers of all backgrounds, they often relied heavily on familiar iconography and symbolism as the primary method of teaching. By using common images and symbolic references, viewers familiar with the basic subject would be able to look at an image and gather its meaning easily, understanding quickly what the image should be used for and how to appropriately respond.[3]

In this depiction of the Nativity, the virgin mother, Mary, occupies the center of the image and is represented as youthful and beautiful. She kneels beside the baby Jesus, who lies on sheaves of wheat or straw. Located just behind Mary and hovering over Jesus are the images of the donkey and the ox, often depicted in scenes of the Nativity and mentioned in the Bible as present at the Nativity. Also included in the image are a vision of Mary and Joseph walking up a path, referring to their long journey to Bethlehem, and far in the distance is a shepherd tending his flock and the angels announcing the birth of Jesus. The presence of these background images help to tell the story of the Nativity and to place the main image in a temporal context.

Schongauer, like other artists of the time, used many symbols referring to Biblical texts and to contemporary beliefs and customs to deepen the meaning of his compositions.  In the Little Nativity, specific references to the Bible include the presence of the ox and the donkey, who are not mentioned in the story of Christ’s birth in the Gospel of Luke but are taken from the Book of Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its master, the donkey it’s owners manger.”[4] The artist, however, develops their importance and meaning even further through the positioning of the two figures. In the late Middle Ages, it was commonly understood that the ox represented Christians, as it was easily led, while the donkey was viewed as being a representation of the Jews for being stubborn in their ways and not accepting Christ.[5] Reflecting this thinking, Schongauer depicts the ox closer to Jesus, its adoring posture echoing the pose of Mary, as it gazes reverently a t the infant Christ, while the ornery-looking donkey is more distant and looks away from Christ.[6]

Details in the representation of Mary and the Christ child are also very symbolic. Atop the head of Mary is a small veil which may be associated with childbirth and motherhood, though her hair is down and free flowing, which frequently symbolized virginity.[7] This representation of Mary with long, loose curls is consistent throughout Schongauer’s career (Figs. 2 and 3). Christ, in this image, is linked to the Eucharist, which is emphasized by his placement upon the sheaves of wheat, proclaiming him as the “Bread of Life.”[8] Like Schongauer’s image, other contemporary images of the Nativity also stray from the Biblical text, which refers to Christ “wrapped in swaddling clothes” and placed in a manger. Artists of the late Middle Ages commonly depicted the infant nude, as in Schongauer’s print, and in or on various items, including altar-like mangers (Fig. 4) and even sarcophagi, which draw very strong correlations between the infant, his destiny, and the rites that commemorate his sacrifice.[9]

Schongauer’s image is not purely symbolical, however, it also provides the viewer a model for devotion. Artists often used the figures in their compositions to represent the proper attitude for the viewing the work.[10] In The Little Nativity, the most prominent figure is Mary, dressed in contemporary clothing in a posture less like that of a new mother and more like one that exemplifies how the viewer should act toward to the image of Christ.  She is kneeling with her arms placed across her chest in a traditional pose of reverence, used even today in the Catholic ritual of Eucharist if one is not prepared to receive the Body and Blood. This was also a common position of prayer at the time as depicted by other artists, such as Albrecht Durer (Figure 5) in his own representation of the Nativity. Mary also gazes somberly at the newborn Jesus, seemingly aware of all that he is destined to become and the trials that await him, which again models the awareness of the viewer. Other parts of the image also offer devotional and behavioral “cues” to the viewer. For instance, Joseph leading Mary along the path in the background offers viewers a strong and loyal follower of God that faithfully accepted Mary and the miracle of her pregnancy.[11]

Schongauer’s Little Nativity, an example of the newly popular and accessible art of printmaking, is thus one of many artworks from the fifteenth century that offer insight as much into how art was used as into what it represented.[12] The symbols were used to remind one of stories and religious concepts, while the figures in the image often mirrored how the viewers outside the frame should act or feel.[13] Works like this reflect the important role of art not just in the cathedrals and monasteries but in the private lives of ordinary individuals in the late Middle Ages.


[1] For more information on Schongauer and his works see, Koreny, Fritz, “Martin Schongauer as a draftsman: a reassessment,” Master Drawings, Vol. 34, (1996): 123-147.

[2] For further reading and examples of devotional prints of the 16th Century see, Clifton, James, Scripture for the eyes: Bible illustration in Netherlandish prints of the sixteenth century, (Museum of Biblical Art, 2009).

[3] Areford, David S.,  “Introduction: The Aura of the Printed Image,” The Viewer and the Printed Image in Late Medieval Europe (Ashgate, 2010), 1-23.

[4] Isaiah 1:3. The Holy Bible: Old and New Testament, King James Version.

[5] Ferguson, George Wells, Signs and Symbols in Christian Art (Oxford University Press. 1959). For more of the representations of the Ox and the Ass, see pp. 11, 22.

[6] Snyder, James, Northern Renaissance Art (Prentice Hall, 2005), 116.

[7] Bartlett, Robert, “Symbolic Meanings of Hair in the Middle Ages,” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society Vol. 4, (1994): 43-60. Free flowing hair a symbol of Maidenhood, pg. 54.

[8] John 6:35. The Holy Bible: Old and New Testament, King James Version.

[9] Lane, Barbra G.. “Ecce Panis Angelorum”: The Manger as an Altar in Hugo’s Berlin Nativity,” The Art Bulletin Vol. 57, No. 4 (December 1975): 476-486.

[10] Wolff, Martha, “An Image of Compassion: Dieric Bouts’s Sorrowing Madonna,” Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies Vol. 15, No. 2 (1989):113-125. The Art Institute of Chicago, 1989.

[11] Miller, Julia I., “Miraculous Childbirth and the Portinari Altarpiece,” The Art Bulletin Vol. 77, No. 2 (June 1995): 249-261.

[12] Marrow, James H.. “Symbol and Meaning in Northern European Art of the Late Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance,” Simiolus: Netherlands Quarterly for the History of Art, Vol. 16, N0. 2/3. (1986): 150-169.

[13] Parshal, Peter, “The Art of Memory and the Passion,” The Art Bulletin Vol. 81, N0. 3 (1999): 456-472.

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