Skip to main content

Nativity and Adoration of the Magi

Russian Icon, Nativity and Adoration of the Magi, c.1680, tempera on panel, 21 5/16 x 17 3/4 x 1 11/16 inches. Brigham Young University Museum of Art, gift of Richard B. and Nadene Oliver.


This icon illustrates scenes from the Nativity of Christ, a significant feast occasion in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Taken from the Gospels and apocryphal writings, the various episodes are presented as a series of events with both narrative and symbolic significance. At center, Mary sits with the swaddled Babe, who rests in a manger. Unlike many western European depictions of the Nativity, Mary and the Infant are shown in a cave represented by the jagged rock landscape above them—a representation of the Orthodox belief that the world was a hostile realm in need of Christ’s saving power.

Associated events of the Nativity surround the central motif. At the upper left, the three Magi—depicted as kings on horseback—journey to pay homage to the Christ Child. At right, two majestic angels appear to the shepherds, heralding the Savior’s birth. The responsive shepherds are represented by the lone red-robed figure that leaves his flock to worship the newborn Child. The shepherd also symbolizes the redeeming mercy of Christ, himself the Good Shepherd who seeks out those who wander. To the right of the manger scene, two figures wash and care for the infant Christ, a reminder of His humanity.

At the bottom left, Joseph is seated, being confronted by a stooped old man, symbolic of the Devil, who tempts Joseph with doubts of the virgin birth of Christ and the Virgin Mary’s situation. This popular motif acknowledged the dilemma of the faithful, who may be tempted to doubt when faith cannot be explained by logic. At the right, the worshipful Magi present their sumptuous gifts to the Virgin and her Child, who are seated on a rich throne.

Icons, small paintings on wooden panels depicting Christ or the saints, have been a major presence in the Eastern Orthodox Church since the second century CE. Regarded as sacred objects, icons acted as mystical windows through which the worshipper’s devotions could be transferred to Christ and the saints. Miraculous powers were also ascribed to these icons such as forgiving sins, healing infirmities, or bringing victory in battle. Russian Orthodox art traditionally depicted human and other forms in a flattened, stiff style that distinguished sacred images as otherworldly. The arched architectural backdrop of the throne, as well as the slightly rounded forms of each figure, suggests the influence of western Renaissance art styles on eastern Orthodox depictions.

Curricular Resources

The MOA has created suggested discussion prompts and assignments for BYU CIV faculty and students to use. Each assignment is based on themes that correspond with GE learning outcomes.

View Curricular Resources Related to This Work: