Our Top Ten Nativity Animal Paintings

No Nativity depiction of a manger is complete without its donkey, ox and sheep. Explore our carefully curated collection of Nativity animal images for resource ideas this Christmas.

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This Christmas, let’s not forget the animals in the Bible. Amidst the global conversation on climate change and care for creation, this fascinating array of images reminds us of  the significant role animals play in the Nativity story. If you’re a Catholic teacher or catechist, these depictions are perfect for KS1 and KS2 religious studies resources or children’s liturgy resources, capturing the essence of the Nativity scene and bringing the Christmas story to life. 

Most Western representations of Jesus’ birth show donkeys, oxen, cows, and sheep watching over the Holy Family and, occasionally, a camel or two arriving with the Three Kings. Rarely do we see animals native to other continents depicted in the manger scene, such as a zebra or giraffe, although a peacock, goshawk, pheasant and select dogs are included in some Italian paintings. So perhaps we should encourage a wider diversity of livestock and celebrate the earth in all its fullness. But were there actually any animals at the manger on the first Christmas? It is hard to know since most of our evidence is unclear.

Pope Benedict XVI’s book Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives says: “In the gospels there is no mention of animals” at the Holy birth. He argues that references to the ox and the donkey in other parts of the Bible probably led Christians to include them in Nativity scenes. In its present form, the custom of displayed figures depicting Christ’s birth owes its origins to St Francis of Assisi (c.1181-1226), who made the first recorded Christmas Crèche or Manger for Christmas Eve in 1223 at Greccio, Italy. St Bonaventure, in his life of St Francis written in 1260, refers to this idea and quotes him:

“I wish to recall to memory the little child who was born in Bethlehem, I want to set before our bodily eyes the hardship of his infant needs, how he lay in the manger, how with an ox and ass standing by he lay upon the hay.”

The donkey is the animal most commonly seen in the Nativity because so many scholars believe Mary rode to Bethlehem on a donkey. Most artistic representations show Joseph leading Mary into town as she rides on the back of a donkey. This is entirely plausible since donkeys were a common mode of transportation for the poor in biblical times.. Another option is that Mary and Joseph travelled in a caravan to the census that King Herod had instigated. Travelling in a caravan was also common practice, was much safer than travelling alone and, at times, required camels. However, we usually see the Three Kings on camels rather than the Virgin Mary in our art.

The earliest Nativity scene in art is carved into a sarcophagus lid, once thought to be for a Roman general, Stilicho, who died in 408 CE. Jesus is wrapped in his swaddling clothes with an ox, an ass and two birds around him. Mary and Joseph are not there, which might allude to the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, chapter 1:3 –

The ox knows its owner,
    and the donkey its master’s crib;
but Israel does not know,
    my people do not understand.

Many nativity scenes and icons include a cow near the cradle or nestling in the manger, and along with the donkey, they are breathing on the Christ-child to keep him warm. Cattle became a firm favourite with modern nativity scenes after the publication of the Christmas carol “Away in a Manger” and its phrase “the cattle were lowing.” Sheep are still included in most manger scenes, usually close to the shepherds and again make their presence known in some of our carols, such as “While Shepherds Watched their Flocks by Night”.

Animals are such a central element to how we visualize the Nativity that it is unthinkable to renounce them regardless of their scriptural authenticity. No manger is complete without its donkey, ox and sheep bleating with joy at the Christ-child’s birth.

Dive in and enjoy our Top Ten Animal Nativity images this Christmas.

The Nativity, Sarcophagus lid, c. 408 AD, Basilica of St Ambrose, Milan. Source: earlychurchhistory.org
Marble relief Flight to Egypt or Bethlehem, c. 400 AD. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel by Duccio, c. 1308-1311. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Nativity by Sandro Botticelli, c. 1473-1475. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Nativity by Gentile da Fabriano, 1423. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano, 1423. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Adoration of the Magi by Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, c. 1440-1460. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Nativity by Antoniazzo Romano, c. 1480s. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Christmas Night (The Blessing of the Oxen) by Paul Gaughin, c. 1902-1903. Source: Wikimedia Commons
The Nativity who were the First to cry Nowell Animals all as it befell by Eric Gill, c. 1914. Source: Wikigallery