Christians often depict Jesus as coming into their own culture, in their present time. The Italians, whose visual language was predominant during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, featured an Italian Jesus in Renaissance times, and they did it so often and so well that when you think “Nativity,” you probably think of the church art from that age and country—not because it offers the most legitimate representations (they are no more “accurate” than the ones below), but because the Church held particular sway at that time, in that place.
The center of Christianity is no longer in the West. If we were to survey the Christian art being produced today, we would see that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph have a much different look. We’d see Mary dressed in a sari or a hanbok; we’d see Jesus wrapped in buffalo skin, or silk. We’d see lizards and kangaroos.
Historical accuracy is not the point of nativity paintings. The purpose is to represent Jesus as one of the people, and relevant to life today.
Below are nineteen contextualizations of the Nativity painted within the last century. Each work brings Jesus into the scene of the artist.
(Edited from https://thejesusquestion.org/2011/12/25/nativity-paintings-from-around-the-world/)
James B. Janknegt, Nativity, 1995. Oil on canvas, 57 x 82 cm.
Crow Nation (Montana-based tribe):
John Guiliani, Mary Gives Birth to Jesus, 1999. From The Crow Series.
John Giuliani, Guatemalan Nativity, 1990s.
Leoncio Saenz, Nacimiento (Nativity), 1983. The banner reads: “I come to tell them that in Nicaragua the new man has been born.”
Dinah Roe Kendall, The Shepherds Went to See the Baby, 1998.
P. Solomon Raj, Nativity, 1980s. Batik.
He Qi, Nativity, 1998. Ink and gouache on rice paper.
A thangka (sacred wall hanging) given by H.H. the Dalai Lama to Fr. Laurence Freeman and the World Community for Christian Meditation in 1998.
Woonbo Kim Ki-chang, The Birth of Jesus Christ, 1952-53. Ink and color on silk, 76 x 63 cm.
Sadao Watanabe, Nativity, 1960s? Stencil print on momigami paper, 58 x 78 cm.
Sawai Chinnawong, Nativity, 2004. Acrylic on canvas, 32 x 37 in.
Hanna Varghese, God Is With Us, 2006. Acrylic on canvas, 16 x 20 in.
Erland Sibuea, Nativity, 2008. Acrylic on canvas, 31 x 23.6 cm.
Kristoffer Ardena, The Meaning of Christmas, 1995. Oil on canvas, 62 x 46 cm.
Francis Musango, Christ in the Manger, n.d. Oil painting.
Fr. Engelbert Mveng, Nativity, early 1990s. Central scene from church mural. Holy Angels Church, Aurora, Illinois.
Democratic Republic of the Congo:
Joseph Mulamba-Mandangi, Nativity, 2001. Peinture grattée, 70 x 50 cm.
Greg Weatherby, Dreamtime Birth, 1990s? 51 x 64 cm.
Paul Gauguin, Baby (The Nativity), 1896. Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.