Benjamin West's The Nativity by Mary Elizabeth Podles

A Thousand Words

Benjamin West's The Nativity

Benjamin West chose an atypical format for his Nativity of 1792: tall and narrow, with the figures of the Holy Family compressed into a shallow space and dominated by the figure of the dramatically uplit angel. Mary cradles the child Jesus at the lower right, while a shadowy Joseph leans over protectively from the left. He holds a candle lantern, which he shields with his hand so that the flame, the sole source of light, is hidden from view. In front of him is a bushel measure, tipped over, and behind it, barely visible, a lamb. Above Mary and Joseph towers the angel, holding in his hand an olive branch; beside him on the rafter to the left sits a pair of doves. He is accompanied by three cherubs, identical in form but seemingly of three different races. How do we make a coherent reading of all these disparate elements?

Light is central to this unusual image. Christ, the light of the world, has been born into obscurity. Like Joseph's candle, the light is hidden, yet it enlightens the whole picture and the whole world. The basket is tipped over: the bushel is lifted and the light revealed. The Lamb of God has entered into the world, though as yet he remains obscure. The light also enlightens the heavens: the majestic angel, with his olive branch and his doves, brings a message of peace to all the races of the world.

The emphasis on Christ's humble origins might have been meant as a gentle reminder to its intended audience. Benjamin West, born a Pennsylvania Quaker of modest means, painted the Nativity as a design for a side window in St. George's Chapel in Windsor Castle, for no less a personage than King George III. West, who was originally self-taught, caught the attention of a wealthy patron who sponsored a grand tour of Europe so that the young painter might study the Old Masters. One stop was Venice, where West quickly absorbed the coloristic and compositional principles of Titian, Veronese, and especially Tintoretto, which are particularly in evidence in this painting.


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.

• Not a subscriber or wish to renew your subscription? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of publishing!

personal subscriptions

Purchase Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!

RENEW your print/online

Online Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

RENEW your online subscription

gift subscriptions

GIVE Print &
Online Subscription

Give six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for the reduced rate of $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!

RENEW your gift subscription

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

kindle subscription

OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)

Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.

more on art from the online archives

30.3—May/June 2017

St. Luke the Evangelist

by Mary Elizabeth Podles

33.2—March/April 2020

Christ Chapel at Hillsdale

An Architectural Sign of Mere Christianity by Michael Ward

32.4—July/August 2019

Sojourner Knight

on Single-Mindedness in Durer's Ritter, Tod, und Teufel by Anthony Costello

more from the online archives

25.6—Nov/Dec 2012

Clashing Symbols

The Loss of Aristotelian Logic & the Social, Moral & Sexual Consequences by Peter Kreeft

22.6—July/August 2009

Samurai Bioethics

on a Noble Defense Doomed by Darwinian Materialism by John G. West

24.3—May/June 2011

God's English

The Making & Endurance of the King James Bible, 1611-2011 by Barton Swaim

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone