‘The Ass’ –
Surely, I can hear you saying, surely there is biblical authority for the ass in a painting of Christ’s birth? It’s always there! How else would they have got to Bethlehem when, ‘there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed’ (Luke 2:10)? Well, it doesn’t say. OK, so the baby was laid in a manger (from the French, manger, ‘to eat’, but I think I’ve said that before), and asses eat at mangers, but that doesn’t mean that an ass was definitely there. And there’s also no mention of how they got to Egypt, apart from the fact that they went by night, and, although it is described as a ‘flight’ they were definitely not on a plane. It’s just that it’s so obvious that there was an ass at the nativity, that it makes most sense to travel with it. That, and the knowledge that that’s how they travelled back then. But there is no mention of it in the bible. So what is this, and what is it doing here?
Well, you’re right, we’re all right, it is a donkey. And yes, a donkey and an ass are exactly the same thing. And it’s here, busily minding its own business, fulfilling a prophesy from the Jewish scriptures – the Old Testament. It’s not even a prophesy really, just an observation, but early Christian theologians saw it as a prophesy. Isaiah started his book lamenting the fact that none of the people were following God’s word, even though the beasts of the field knew what was what: ‘The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider’ (Isaiah 1:3). The parallel of ‘crib’ and ‘manger’ must have been particularly compelling: no room in the inn, so he was laid in a manger, where oxen and asses were likely to eat – so what more fitting than the very creatures that Isaiah mentioned being there at the birth?
It still doesn’t quite help to make the leap to include them in the paintings. However, the bible may be a good book, the Good Book many people would say, but it wasn’t the only book, and in the same way that we tell and retell stories over and over again, the bible stories were subject to constant reinterpretation, particularly as there are so many gaps, so much that was not explained. To communicate better with the people, and to give them something that is easier to grasp, why not tell the stories with a fuller narrative? Many texts never made it into the ‘Bible’ we know today – a number of apocryphal gospels, for example. One of them, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, was probably written in the first half of the 7th century (although some people think it dates to the 8th, or even 9th century) and so it is a relative latecomer, drawing on two texts from the 2nd Century, the Protoevangelium and the Infancy Gospel of Luke. Nevertheless, it was around from the 9th Century at the very latest, and even if bits were added in and taken out along the way, it would have been there for the artists to read. It includes 42 chapters (probably not the reason that Douglas Adams thought that 42 was the answer to life, the universe and everything), and this is most of Chapter 14:
And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib. The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having Him in their midst, incessantly adored Him.
So there they are, the ox and the ass, and the precise reason why they were there – to fulfil ‘that which was said by Isaiah the prophet’. And there they will remain, incessantly adoring him. Incessantly. OK, so the ass has taken a break to munch on a bottle of hay, but where is the ox? Well, off to the left, emerging from a doorway, possibly where its stall is located.
I’m intrigued by this ox, having the seen the original painting for the first time in ages yesterday, as it seems to have two left horns. Either that, or the foreshortening of a left horn at this angle, and emerging from a doorway, would be rather difficult. Or there is another ox lurking out of sight… although that seems unlikely. But here it is, and there is the ass, and, given breaks for refreshment, they will be there, incessantly adoring him, in all the nativity scenes you will see. And, never happy with one single interpretation, when there could be multiple layers, the ox came to represent the Jews who converted to Christianity, while the ass represents the Gentiles. But that, I presume, is another story.