Last year, I began to feel that I should attempt a Nativity painting. This of course was a very daunting idea, but I figured the best place to start was with research. I began with Luke 2:7,
“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
I also came upon an article of archeologist, Jeffrey R. Chadwick, and found it eye opening and inspiring. Jeffrey R. Chadwick has worked in Israel as a researcher and field archaeologist for over thirty years, specializing in the backgrounds of biblical narratives. He suggested that the manger would have most likely been carved out of white limestone, one of the most abundant natural resources in the Israelite region, and showed pictures of many similar mangers they have uncovered on archaeological digs. And while we like to think of the baby, “asleep on the hay”, he also states that this was also unlikely, as grass was available on the hills surrounding Judea year round. They really would have had no need to store hay, and the mangers were most likely used for water.
I also learned that while we often think of “swaddling bands” as scraps of fabric, showing the poverty of Mary and Joseph, they were actually a big part of Israelite culture. When a young woman was betrothed she immediately began embroidering swaddling bands, which were 5-6” wide strips of linen that would be embroidered with symbols of the ancestry of the bride and groom. Thus the bands symbolized the coming together of the two families as one. They also symbolized the integrity of the woman, as she strove to make both sides of the embroidery match exactly, symbolizing to her soon to be husband that she was as good on the inside as she was on the outside. These bands were then wrapped around the hands of the couple at the wedding ceremony. So the bands the Savior was swaddled in may have included the lion of Judah and the stem of Jesse.
As I wrapped my head around these rather mind altering ideas, I realized that many of the concepts that we have of the Savior’s birth revolve around paintings of European artists from centuries ago. I’m sure they painted according to the best of their abilities and knowledge, but I also wondered why more modern painters had yet to illustrate these concepts. I felt up to the task and began sketching right away. I picked up limestone from a stone yard, I bought linen from the fabric store, and just in time one of my good friends had a baby boy, and oddly enough, his name was Luke. I put all these components together and created this painting.
As I’ve sketched and worked, my heart has been so full as I’ve uncovered this image. For when you take away the Hollywood drama, the traditions of centuries, and the wood and the hay, all you’re really left with is a babe in white linen on white stone. And my mind immediately went to the purpose of the Savior’s life: He was born to die. He came as the sacrificial lamb for all mankind; so how fitting that He would begin his life on a stone altar of sorts, and be wrapped in white linen, like he would after His death. And of course He would be placed in a trough for water, for He would be Living Water, and would bring life to all. I also found myself weeping for the Father, and how it must have felt to see His Son begin life foreshadowing His death. My heart was so full of gratitude that He would send His Only Begotten to be the Savior for us all. That He would send His Son, the King of Kings, and Lord of Lords, to die so that we all might live. What good news, what comfort and joy, what a gift was given to us all. O come, let us adore Him.