Title Image: Gerard van Honthorst, Adoration of the Shepherds, 1622, oil on canvas, Pomeranian State Museum.

Every year, the same iconic scenes and figurines pop out on front lawns and greeting cards: Joseph, Mary, angels, oxen, donkey, Christ child, shepherds from stage left, maybe Magi from stage right, yellow straw, twinkling stars. All the details fall, predictably, into place as we expect them to after many years’ conditioning from Christmas pageants, carols, and, of course, centuries of art. The sheer ubiquity of the Nativity scene can sometime dull us to its actual significance. But, in less image-saturated times than ours, the Nativity scene packed a much stronger emotional and spiritual punch. No element included within the composition was unimportant.

Botticelli, Detail from the Mystic Nativity, 1500, oil on canvas, National Gallery London.

So, this year, I present to you another quick Christmas Art History Lesson in which we will stretch our historical imaginations back to early modern Europe (roughly 1400-1700) and focus on one tiny element among many within the Nativity visual tradition–the swaddling clothes. What to us may only conjure a memory of wrapping a baby doll in a pillowcase for the Christmas play was a potent symbol within the narrative, full of possible meanings.

She Wrapped the Babe: The Original Context

Terracotta figure of a woman seated on a throne, holding a tightly-wrapped baby, Boethian, 450 BCE ca., British Museum.

Luke mentions “swaddling clothes” twice in his account: when Mary wraps her baby (2:7) and in the angels’ announcement to the shepherds (2:12). Swaddling babies is an ancient practice (and I mean thousands of years old–see the image above!). In first-century Rome, mothers wrapped their children for the same reasons babies are swaddled today–for warmth, for comfort, for protection. At this time, mothers also believed swaddling prevented a child’s limbs from growing deformed [1]. So the mention of swaddling in the Gospels coincides with common practices of the day.

Mary’s Robes and Joseph’s Stockings

Joseph Malouel?, Nativity, oil on tempera (c. 1400), Museum Mayer van den Bergh, Antwerp, Belgium (Wikimedia Commons)

During the Middle Ages, many different theories about Christ’s swaddling clothes were discussed in stories of the saints and in retellings of the Virgin’s life. Some people believed Mary wrapped the Christ Child in her girdle or robe. But I find a tradition that appeared in northern Europe in the fourteenth century the most moving. In some images of the Nativity from this region, Joseph is depicted barefoot because he has used his old, shabby stockings to wrap the Christ child [2]. In the image above, the Christ child has yet to be swaddled. Mary waits patiently as Joseph removes and cuts his stocking into strips of cloth, his bare toes now exposed to the cold. Maybe it’s a silly story, but the swaddling clothes in this case become an empathetic sign of the holy family’s severe poverty, the faithful love of Mary and Joseph, and a sign of Christ’s utter humility. All these concepts would have connected the nativity characters to the real plight of the present-day poor.

Veiled in the Flesh

Pilgrim souvenir engraving for the 7-yearly pilgrimages (Heiligtumsfahrt) of Maastricht, Aachen and Kornelimünster, printed in Mainz or the Middle Rhine Area in 1468(?). The engraving shows the main relics in these three towns (including the Virgin’s robe in the center and Joseph’s stockings on the bottom), that were shown to the pilgrims once in seven years around the same time. Paper, Collection: Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich. (Wikimedia Commons).

For much of church history, Christians interpreted the swaddling clothes as a symbol of the incarnation. The Bible is full of references to the “veil” of flesh. God covers the new shame of Adam and Eve with the skin of animals, Moses dons a veil because he glows too bright after a glimpse of God’s back, the author of Hebrews calls Christ’s flesh a veil through which he made a way for humans to see God (Hebrews 10:20). In the Middle Ages, bits of cloth–Christ’s swaddling clothes, Mary’s robes, Joseph’s stockings–were all venerated as relics (as seen in this pilgrim’s souvenir). These objects not only symbolized divinity, but they contained something of the divine through contact with Christ’s human body. The swaddling clothes captured the mystical mystery of Christ’s human and divine nature.

Foreshadows of Shrouds

Filippo Parodi, Sleeping Christ Child, c.1675. Marble, The Cleveland Museum of Art

Filippo Parodi, Detail from the sculpture in the chapel of the Pietà in Church Saint Justina of Padua in Italy, 1689 (Wikimedia Commons).

Even as the swaddling clothes could remind a viewer of the wonder of the incarnation, they also foreshadowed Christ’s death. The seventeenth-century sculpture The Sleeping Christ Child plays with these illusions [3]. Captured in the cold medium of marble, the child’s unmoving, sleepless state holds a premonition of his death. In fact, fourteen years later, the artist based another sculpture of the adult dead Christ within a Pietà in the same position of the Sleeping Christ Child. Swaddling clothes are thus inextricably linked with grave clothes.

The Bread of Life on the Altar Cloth

The last important association prompted by swaddling cloth is to an object that can be seen in many churches today–the altar cloth. In the middle ages, white linen covered the altar at the front of the church specifically to highlight the connection between Christ’s swaddling clothes and his sacrificial death. The medieval Bishop Durandus wrote that the linens are “whitened with great effort” just like Christ made a great sacrifice to be born as human, purify human flesh through his death, and perfect flesh through his resurrection [4]. With these connections in mind, it seems fitting that the eucharist (the bread that was literally Christ’s body to Christians at this period) was wrapped in cloth and served on the altar draped in white fabric. The Sleeping Christ Child hints at these connections through the wheat stalks that peek out behind the baby’s haloed head.

At its most basic and intuitive level, cloth can remind us of the feelings of warmth and touch–the texture of wool or fleece protective against a cold wind, the tender pressure of being tucked in at night. Because of these human details within the Nativity story, the tiny family huddled in a barn in Bethlehem so long ago feel as close as our own memories. We can see our own human frailty in the icons of their visual story. And, when we add to these tactile associations to the rich symbolic and theological significance wrapped up in the swaddling clothes, those humble strips of cloth can become more than a mere prop, but instead an eloquent sign of the marvelous complexity of Christ’s divinely human life.


[1] Sophie Oosterwijk, The Swaddling-clothes of Christ: a Medieval Relic on Display. Medieval Life, Vol.13 (2000).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Cleveland Museum of Art Announces Major New Acquisition,” December 1, 2018. http://www.clevelandart.org/about/press/media-kit/cleveland-museum-art-announces-major-new-acquisition

[4] Timothy M. Thibodeau trans. The Rationale Divinorum Officiorum of William Durand of Mende [A New Translation of the Prologue and Book One] (New York Columbia University Press, 2007), 30.

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