Andrei Rublev's The Nativity
by Mary Elizabeth Podles
The full title of Andrei Rublev's icon is The Nativity in the Flesh of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; for all that, the poor infant Savior is given rather short shrift. He is placed at the center of the image, within a womb-like grotto like the one in Bethlehem traditionally associated with his birth. Sharp, angular rocks rise above it to symbolize the harshness of the world into which he is born. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a tomblike manger as if to foreshadow his grave clothes and his future tomb. His very littleness seems to speak of the human frailty he was born to embrace. The lowly workaday animals, the ox and the ass, which symbolize the Jewish and the pagan peoples, regard this newcomer to their feedbox with appropriate surprise. He leans toward his mother, but even she turns her
Mary is the dominant figure of the icon. Stretched at the diagonal on a mandorla-shaped cushion, she who has just borne God leans her hand on her cheek in the traditional gesture of melancholy. Her gaze rests on a little gnarled tree at the right: this is the Tree of Jesse, and only she recognizes her little son's royal heritage. Or, it may at the same time be the Tree of Life, which the liturgical apolytikion proclaims "has blossomed from the Virgin in the cave." Her bed is like a bier and her pose similar to that of the Virgin in icons of the Dormition, so that we must wonder if she, too, looks toward her own earthly end.
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Mary Elizabeth Podles is the retired curator of Renaissance and Baroque art at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland. She and her husband Leon, a Touchstone senior editor, have six children and live in Baltimore, Maryland.
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