The story of the Nativity has been represented in many different formats throughout history.The Virgin Mary and child have been depicted in paintings, sculpture and even on more functional objects. It is a story that is known to all across the Christian world and many more beyond that. It’s no surprise that scenes from the Nativity have been used throughout history to not only recount the story but to also serve a much wider purpose.
The story in summary is as follows: Mary receives word from the Angel Gabriel that she is pregnant with the son of God. Not long after this, Mary and her husband Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to register in the census of Quirinius. At this time, the Roman occupation of Judea called for a record of everyone living in the province by ordering that they return to their town of birth. In the case of Mary, as the wife of Joseph, she had to return to her husband’s town. Being heavily pregnant at the time, Mary made the journey on a donkey or mule. They arrive at Bethlehem to find nowhere to stay. All that was available was a small stable, which would provide nothing more than shelter. It was here that Mary gave birth, placing her child in a manger. The child was named Yeshua (ישוע), which later became Jesus as the story was translated into other languages.
At this time, an angel appeared to shepherds on a nearby hill and announced the birth. Elsewhere, a star is noted as having guided the three Magi (or Wise men) to Bethlehem. These wise men arrive 12 days after Christmas, bringing gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh to the child. However when Herod, king of Judea, hears of the birth of a new messiah, he orders all new-born males to be killed. Thus Mary and Joseph flee to Egypt with their child.
These scenes have persisted in religious iconography throughout history and have been used within the Christian world as a sign of authority and piety. Although aspects of the story of the Nativity have been depicted in a variety of different ways, standards were developed to make the scenes easily recognisable. Medieval seal matrices often depicted scenes from the Nativity and would have most likely belonged to senior officials at monasteries or churches. Many examples have been recorded on the PAS database showing how these standards of depicting specific scenes developed throughout the Medieval period. Most common are the Virgin Mary and Child designs (WILT-5F2594), with around 54 examples recorded with the PAS alone. Less common scenes include the Star in the sky that guided the three wise men to Bethlehem (SWYOR-457EF7) and the flight to Egypt ( IHS-5084E2).