Nativity Sets in the Eastern Tradition
- In the traditional iconography, the birth of Christ is depicted in a cave, above which a star shines on the sacred event. The icon shows rays of light emanating from the star, rays that reach down into the cave to touch the baby Jesus. The star is a vital representation in the icon as it demonstrates the involvement of heaven in this holy moment, reaching down into the temporal world to connect to the Christ, indicating the joining of Heaven and Earth in his spirit. The star also points to the location of the baby Jesus, serving as the messenger of the good tidings to humanity.
The Virgin Mary
- The Virgin is shown in traditional icons as reclining in a state of ease and grace. Her demeanor is calm and soft, more aligned with someone in deep meditation rather than the agonies of childbirth. She is depicted in this way to illustrate the divinity of the childbirth experience for Mary. She does not give birth in suffering and pain like other women. Instead, God graces her with a "supernatural" ability to give birth completely pain-free. Mary's garments are marked by golden stars, designating her to the viewer as a virgin, a status that Mary maintains throughout her life, marking her divinity as the holy Virgin Mary, Mother of God.
The Baby Jesus
- The baby Jesus in the Nativity icon is dressed and placed in such a way as to recall not only the birth, but also the death of Christ. He is placed in the image in a cave, lying in a stone manger that resembles a crypt, both reminders of where Jesus was laid to rest after his crucifixion. Even the baby's swaddling clothes are displayed to remind the viewer of the anointing and draping of the body of the dead Christ. By depicting the newborn baby Jesus with these reminders of Jesus' death, the icon encourages the meditative viewer to remember that Jesus came to Earth with a mission -- a mission that was present even at his birth.
- Isaiah, one of the Old Testament prophets who foretold Christ's birth --"For unto us a child is born; Unto us a Son is given" (Isaiah 9:6), is called to mind by the meditative viewer of the nativity icon. Isaiah offered another prophecy regarding animals -- "The ox knows his master, and the donkey his master's crib" (Isaiah 1:3), and this recognition of the Christ by the animals is represented in the icon by the ox and donkey who recline by the manger where the Christ child lays. The animals' recognition of the Christ is significant, as Isaiah warns in the same verse that humanity will not recognize and acknowledge their savior, but the animals will.