Merry Christmas with an artifact from the Byzantine Museum of Athens:
People usually associate the Orthodox tradition with Byzantine-style icons or murals, but sculptural representations of the life of Christ were not unheard of in the early Christian tradition.
One such example is a Nativity scene in the Byzantine Museum of Athens. The marble fragment is from the island of Naxos (famous for its fine white marble) and dates from the 4th or 5th century CE. The scene is very simple, almost minimalistic: the Holy Infant is in the mange, flanked by an ox and a donkey (ass), sine qua non elements of early Christian iconography, as they refer to Isaiah 1,3: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.” Others believe that the two animals symbolize the people Christ has come to deliver: the Israelites (ox) burdened by the Law, and the heathens (ass) burdened by the sin of idolatry.
The animals are, in turn, flanked by two trees, a pine, on the left, symbolizing eternal life, and what looks like a grape vine on the right, symbolizing the human nature of Jesus.
The upper part is missing – what remains are the feet of a man and a donkey, possibly from a scene showing the flight into Egypt.
My best wishes for a Merry Christmas to all.
It was nice to see this relief.
What are those bumps in the slab above the animals? They are a bit too prominent to be accidental. Actually, they look like what might have been angels singing on high (as in Giotto’s paintings), later worn away or eliminated on purpose.
Happy Kings’ Day to you from Spain!
Thanks – I’m glad you liked it.
I’m not sure about the bumps. I haven’t been able to find anything about them in any book. From up close they look nothing like figures. Besides, they ought to have been no more worn than the rest of the figures.
To me they look more like they could be the artist’s attempt to show that the backdrop is a natural cave and not a completely leveled surface, like a building. Or, he could be trying to make the transition to the scene above a little more natural. Or both.
But I’m intrigued; I’ll keep looking and asking and let you know if I find something.