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Art History

15 Christmas Artworks From Throughout History

As the holiday is approaching, I thought I’d share one of my favorite blog posts from a couple years ago.  It’s interesting to see how the holiday has been depicted throughout the years in art.  Do you have a favorite?  

Merry Christmas to everyone celebrating today!  I searched the interwebs for Christmas art to share with you today and I ended up finding TONS!  After retrieving myself from various rabbit holes, I’m sharing 15 favorites from the ones that I found. 

1. The Nativity by Martin Schongauer (1435-1491)

The Nativity by Martin Schongauer. 1470 German Renaissance engraving of nativity scene
1435–1491, The Nativity by Martin Schongauer

Martin Schongauer was a printmaker, engraver, and painter in a region now Eastern France but at the time a German-speaking part of the Holy Roman Empire.  His art exemplified the Gothic art style.  This piece is an engraving created approximately 1435-1491.

2. Nativity and Adoration of Shepherds by Domenico Ghirlandaio (1485)

Nativity and Adoration of Shepherds by Ghirlandaio. Tempura painting of nativity scene.
1485, Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds by Domenico Ghirlandaio

Domenico Ghirlandaio was an Italian Renaissance painter from Florence.  This oil painting was painted as an altarpiece in the Sassetti Chapel of Santa Trinita in Florence, Italy.  It was commissioned by Francesco Sassetti who was the director of the Medici Bank.  As many artists of this time period, Ghirlandaio painted himself in the scene as one of the characters (in this case a shepherd – likely the one pointing to Baby Jesus).  

3. Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (1490)

Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. Early Netherlandish painting of nativity scene
1490, Nativity at Night by Geertgen tot Sint Jans

Geertgen tot Sint Jans was an Early Netherlandish painter from the northern Low Country of the Holy Roman Empire.   He was one of the first and most well-known oil painters of that region.  This painting was created by oil paints on oak panel.  During this time period (and throughout art history), you can see where several artists have done very similar paintings around the same theme.  Many artists were commissioned by the church and wealthy merchants to help spread the story of Christmas (as well as other religious stories) through their art.  

4. Mystic Nativity by Sandro Botticelli (1500)

Mystic Nativity by Botticelli. Italian Renaissance painting of nativity scene
1500, Mystic Nativity by Sandro Botticelli

Sandro Botticelli was a painter from the Early Italian Renaissance and one of my favorites during that time period.  He is probably best known for his mythological paintings, such as Birth of Venus.  Mystic Nativity is an oil painting on canvas.  I love how he portrays softness and movement in cloth – such as with the dancing angels in this painting.

5. Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Durer (1504)

Adoration of Magi by Albrecht Durer. Painting of nativity scene
1504, Adoration of the Magi by Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer is probably most well-known for his woodcut prints, so I found it extra interesting to find this version of Adoration of the Magi painted by him.  Durer was a printmaker, painter, and theorist of the German Renaissance.  This piece was commissioned for the altar of Schlosskirche in Wittenberg by Frederick the Wise.  Durer painted himself into the painting as one of the kings (the long-haired one in green).

6. The Sistine Madonna by Raphael (1512-13)

Sistine Madonna by Raphael. 1513 painting commissioned by Pope Julius II of the nativity scene.
1512-13, The Sistine Madonna by Raphael

Raphael was an Italian painter and architect of the High Renaissance.  This painting Sistine Madonna is one of his most well-known works (especially the two cherubs on the bottom).  It was an oil painted altarpiece commissioned by Pope Julius II in 1512 for the church of San Sisto, Piacenza.  

7 & 8. The Hunters in the Snow (1565) and The Census at Bethlehem (1566) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Northern Renaissance painting of hunters walking through snow followed by a pack of dogs overlooking the town with a frozen river
1565, The Hunters in the Snow by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

I tried to pick just one of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s works, but I couldn’t choose.  I really like the composition of The Hunters in the Snow.  I like how the eye is drawn to the contrast between the trees and snow in the left foreground and then travels down throughout the painting.  

Pieter Bruegel the Elder was a painter and printmaker of the Dutch and Flemish Renaissance.  He is known for his landscapes and genre paintings (including peasants as subjects doing everyday tasks).  In The Census at Bethlehem, he shows a biblical scene but updated it to contemporary times and his own location.  

Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Northern Renaissance painting of snow-covered busy town center
1566, The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

9. Adoration of the Shepherds by Caravaggio (1609)

Adoration of Sheppards by Caravaggio. Painting of nativity scene.
1609, Adoration of the Shepherds by Caravaggio

Michelangelo Merisi (known as Caravaggio) was an Italian painter who influenced the transition from Mannerism to the Baroque art movement.  His work uses tenebrism (a dramatic use of chiaroscuro – high contrast between highlights and shadows).   His paintings show the subject’s human realistic physical and emotional state – often portraying struggle, pain, and torture.  I was a little surprised to find a nativity scene by him, but when I saw this painting I instantly recognized it was by him.  This version differs from the Renaissance versions that came before it as it shows the figures mostly as ordinary people barefoot in robes, rather than overtly divine figures (though if you look closely you can see very faint halos above Mary and Joseph).  The barn feels like a realistic scene dimly lit by candle.  

10. Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst (1622)

The Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerrit van Honthorst. 1622 oil painting of nativity scene
1622, Adoration of the Shepherds by Gerard van Honthorst

Like I mentioned earlier, you’ll find many similar titles and themes throughout art history – such as Adoration of the Shepherds.  This version is by Dutch Golden Age painter Gerard van Honthorst.  To be honest, this is a new artist for me, but I found the way he portrayed light warm and inviting.  Honthorst was greatly influenced by Caravaggio’s work after visiting Rome.  

11. Merry Christmas by Viggo Johansen (1891)

Silent Night by Viggo Johansen. 1891 painting of family dancing with hands held around the Christmas tree
1891, Merry Christmas by Viggo Johansen

I found this picture while looking for something else for this post and just had to include it!  It has a magical feel with the lights and it reminds me of an Impressionist painting (my favorite art movement).  Viggo Johansen was a Danish painter and part of the Skagen Painters.  He was influenced greatly by Impressionist Claude Monet.

12. Three Wise Men by Salvador Dali (1947)

Three Wise Men by Picasso. Greeting card drawing of three kinds on camels
1947, Three Wise Men by Salvador Dali

Did you know that Hallmark commissioned several well-known artists to create Christmas cards?  This was one of the ones by Salvador Dali – Three Wise Men.  Salvador Dali was a Spanish artist to was part of the Surrealism movement.  His art explored themes of dreams and the subconscious, and included a lot of symbolism.

13. Santa with Drawers by Salvador Dali (1948)

Santa with Drawers by Salvador Dali. 1948 illustrated greeting card surreal image of santa with drawers coming out of front.
1948, Santa with Drawers by Salvador Dali

Santa with Drawers was another one of the pieces he created and I really enjoy it’s homage to The Persistence of Memory.  Several of the pieces he created didn’t end being published due to Hallmark not thinking the public would receive them well.  

14. Merry Christmas, Grandma by Norman Rockwell (1951)

Merry Christmas, Grandma by Norman Rockwell. Illustration of family arriving at door of house loaded up with presents in hand. Mom, dad, three children and puppy.
1951, Merry Christmas, Grandma by Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell has a way of encompassing the human experience.  The longer I look at this illustration, the more it brings back memories of Christmas mornings loading into the car for the hour or so drive to the Grandparents’ houses.  Everyone showing up in bundled up packs, hands full of presents, cookies, and side dishes.  Norman Rockwell has lots of Christmas themed art to check out.  He was an American painter and illustrator who created art idealizing ordinary life for The Saturday Evening Post and later art surrounding social justice issues and space exploration for Look Magazine.

15. Man Tangled Up in Christmas Decorations by Al Brule (1953)

Man Tangled Up in Christmas Decorations by Al Brule. Painting of man in suit minus jacket sitting on top of ladder next to Christmas tree with strings of lights and popcorn tangled around him.
1953, Man Tangled Up in Christmas Decorations by Al Brule

And lastly for this list, Man Tangled Up in Christmas Decorations by Al Brule.  I kind of feel like this is me anytime I try to string lights on a full size tree (lately I opt for a mini tree).  Elmo Alfred “Al” Brulé Jr. was an American painter and illustrator; he was well known for his work creating pin-ups for Esquire calendars.  

 

Do you have a favorite piece of Christmas art?

There were so many different ones that I came across while researching (much more than I had time to include).  Do you have a favorite from this post?  Do you have one that you’d want to add to the list? Leave me a comment and let us know!

Resources & Further Learning

  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Schongauer
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Domenico_Ghirlandaio
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geertgen_tot_Sint_Jans
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandro_Botticelli
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Mystical_Nativity
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albrecht_D%C3%BCrer
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adoration_of_the_Magi_(D%C3%BCrer)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pieter_Bruegel_the_Elder
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Census_at_Bethlehem
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Hunters_in_the_Snow
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caravaggio
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adoration_of_the_Shepherds_(Caravaggio)
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerard_van_Honthorst
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viggo_Johansen
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_Picasso
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salvador_Dal%C3%AD
  • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Rockwell
  • https://www.artsy.net/article/the-art-genome-project-the-complex-meaning-behind-one-of-christmas-s-most-enduring-symbols
  • https://www.artsy.net/tag/nativity
  • https://news.artnet.com/art-world/top-10-christams-artworks-393582
  • https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2014/dec/24/artworks-that-define-christmas-in-pictures
  • https://www.openculture.com/2019/12/when-salvador-dali-created-christmas-cards-that-were-too-avant-garde-for-hallmark-1960.html
  • https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-hallmark-once-gave-works-rockwell-dali-masses
  • https://remodernreview.wordpress.com/2018/12/24/artists-salvador-dalis-surreal-christmas-cards/
  • https://www.hallmarkartcollection.com/creatively-thinking/stories/dali-at-hallmark/
  • https://www.wired.com/2015/12/norman-rockwell-christmas-holiday-photographs/

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About the Artist

Photo of Laura Jaen Smith

Laura Jaen Smith is an artist who lives and works out of Horseheads, New York. Her inspiration comes from observing the beauty she sees around her.  After a decade living out west, she returned back to New York State and started seeing the same old places with new eyes.  She is most interested in capturing small moments in nature that might otherwise be overlooked.

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