ART / The not so dumb animals: What is the nature of the beast? In Nativity scenes, the animals are frequently doing more than simply standing around. Andrew Graham-Dixon enters the stable and attempts to explain what the ox and the ass are up to

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The Independent Culture
This might be the season of goodwill to all men, but it is a lousy month for farm animals. Killed, hung, cured, spiced, plucked, stuffed, roasted, their role in the Christmas festivities is now more or less restricted to satisfying human appetites. But it was not always quite like that. The paintings of the Nativity reproduced on so many modern Christmas cards demonstrate that animals once occupied an important place in people's minds, as well as their stomachs, at this time of year.

Two animals in particular: the ox and the ass, said to have accompanied Joseph and Mary on the flight from Egypt. They are almost always present, in Adorations or Nativities, but not much regarded; even the most beetle- browed art historical commentators tend to pass them over as insignificant, perennial details. Spare a thought for the bit players, the eternal spear-carriers, of the Nativity story. They have their own histories and their own not entirely straightforward backgrounds. Their behaviour can be unpredictable. The ox and the ass are often not as innocent, and certainly not as dumb, as they look.

One of the National Gallery's most beautiful early Netherlandish paintings, Geertgen tot Sint Jans's quietly mystical The Nativity, at Night, abbreviates the ass and the ox to a pair of large kind animal faces looming out of the darkness just above the crib in which the Christ child lies. His divinity is manifest in the light that radiates from his body, but also in the spontaneous worship he inspires in the two animals. They function, in Geertgen's picture, as a sort of bestial chorus, and their wide-eyed, solicitous, distinctly non-bestial response to the holy Infant subtly underlines the extraordinary nature of the event taking place - a less strident but no less pointed affirmation of the miracle of Christ's birth than the hovering, spotlit angel in the picture's night sky.

The ass and the ox in Geertgen's picture also function as an early prototype of gas central heating. They warm the baby with their breath. The artist was probably working from one of the many visions of the Nativity granted to various saints (that was their story, anyway) during the early Middle Ages. In Ludolf of Saxony's Vita Christi, the writer claimed to have 'seen' the Nativity and described how 'the ox and the ass, kneeling down, put their mouths to the crib, breathing through their noses on to the child, because they knew that at that cold time he needed to be heated up in that manner'. By Geertgen's time it had become fairly common to see the ox and the ass as symbols of God's solicitude for his son: a makeshift life-support system, improvised to cope with freezing manger conditions.

But it should be said, at this point, that Geertgen's painting may well be a fraud. Sources close to the Son of God have suggested that the ox and the ass may well never have been with the Holy Family in Bethlehem. Luke, who gives the fullest biblical account of the Nativity, makes no mention of the presence of animals at the event. The first reference to the ox and ass at the Nativity comes several centuries after the fact, in a book that is not much read these days: the Gospel according to Pseudo-Matthew, written some time in the eighth century. The author of this apocryphal text is unlikely to have invented this detail on his own. It seems probable that the early church fathers had also placed the ox and the ass at the Nativity because of what seemed a suggestive reference to the two animals in the Book of Isaiah: 'The ox knows its owner and the ass its master's stall; but Israel, my own people, has no knowledge, no discernment.'

This seemed, to the busy exegetical minds of the Bible's early interpreters, to prefigure the animals' presence at the birth of Christ. So the ox and the ass were imported into images of the Nativity some time around the ninth century for primarily symbolical reasons: these dumb animals, instinctively recognising the Son of God, were seen as a tacit reproof to the Jews, who refused to acknowledge Christ as the Messiah. They became a visible sign of the old dispensation (the Old Testament) giving way to the new. This is the primary meaning of the two solemnly worshipful beasts, who kneel at the crib not just in Geertgen's painting but also, at the National Gallery, in the scene of the Nativity in Jacopo di Cione's 1370-71 altarpiece The Coronation of the Virgin and Spinelli's 1647 Nativity.

But the meaning of the ass and the ox's presence at the Nativity was never entirely fixed during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, when the significance of just about every detail of biblical or apocryphal text relating to the life of Christ was endlessly debated and modified. The two animals were not always seen as equals, and the ox is frequently seen to behave rather better and more respectfully to the Infant Christ than the ass. In Botticelli's fantastically complex Mystic Nativity, in the National Gallery, the ox kneels quietly, brow faintly furrowed in devotion, while the ass stands and tucks into a mouthful of hay from the crib. Botticelli is echoing an old interpretation of the Bible according to which the ox, who 'knows his owner' in Isaiah, is contrasted favourably with the ass, who only 'knows his master's stall': the ox symbolises true faith, whereas the ass symbolises worldy absorption in material things, and a failure to perceive the true significance of the miracle of Christ's birth.

The ass frequently behaves poorly in Renaissance paintings of the Nativity. In Abraham Gossaert's Adoration of the Kings in the National Gallery, he is munching some weeds in the background; in Jacques Daret's Nativity in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection, he stands while the ox kneels; in the National Gallery's Pacchiarotto Nativity, the ox, again, kneels before the infant Christ while the ass is seen, from behind, looking somewhat disrespectfully away. In such paintings, the ox alone has come to stand for the New Testament and those who heed its message. The ass has metamorphosed into doubting humanity, indifferent to the miracle of Christ's birth; he has become code for the Jew.

The ox tended to get off lightly in pictures of the Nativity because he had a more respectable symbolic lineage than the ass: the ox, as a sacrificial animal, was designated by the early church fathers as a visual type of Christ's own sacrifice; the ox was, too, a symbol of strength and of patience personified. But he was not entirely immune to ingenious re-readings of the Bible either. In early medieval images of the Nativity, the ox and the ass are often both seen to be behaving badly. In a number of illuminated manuscripts, the animals are seen attempting to tear off the Infant Christ's swaddling clothes with their teeth. The most bizarre development of this strain of images of the Nativity is to be found on a 15th-century roof-boss in the Chancel of the English church of Nantwich, where the ox and the ass engage in a tug-of-war over the swaddling clothes of an evidently distraught Christ child. The meaning of such scenes is still not entirely clear, but it seems probable that in this case the ox and the ass represent two kinds of doubters, the Jews and the Gentiles.

Animals, in medieval art, usually turn out to have human faces. The ass, however, may be the more ambiguously treated animal of the pair, and Christian teaching never seems to have been entirely sure of what to make of him. Part of the problem derived from the fact that asses, in the Middle East at the time of Christ, had very different connotations from those that they acquired in Western Europe during the subsequent thousand years. In Christ's time, the ass was a sort of status symbol: a beast to be proud of, which may partly explain why Jesus made his triumphant entry into Jerusalem on an ass. But in Europe in the Middle Ages, the ass was a symbol of ignorance and lowliness, the animal image of all that was to be despised.

Adjustments to the modern Western symbolism of the ass were accordingly made, although they did not all tend in the same direction. On the one hand, the ass became the villain of the Nativity, the ignorant Jew, but on the other he became an image of Christ's own willingness to accept poverty as his lot. The ass became crucial to the Nativity as a sign of Christ's democratic, altruistic politics: an aspect of the animal's meaning that was emphasised, in particular, by Saint Francis of Assisi, who made Christ's poverty and humility central to his teachings. Painters who adopted a Franciscan reading of the Nativity were likely to present the ass in a sympathetic light, a poor animal of burden whose hard life prefigured that of Christ himself.

But the ass also had a darker side to his history. Asses had played a lively part in priapic rituals going back to antiquity, and their symbolic association with lewdness and sexual excess would survive into the Middle Ages: in Paris in the 12th century, convicted prostitutes were forced to ride naked through the streets on the backs of asses.

And medieval sermons refer to the ass as a symbol of a lustful humanity whom only faith can save; and the association between the ass and sexual abandonment may be found in Shakespeare (Iago compares Othello to an oversexed ass) as well as in the modern phrase 'hung like a donkey'.

All of which may in part explain an apparently odd detail, almost obliterated by time and overcleaning, in the background of Piero della Francesca's Nativity, in the National Gallery: the ghostly figure of an ass, its head raised, braying with all its might. The braying ass was, also, the sexual ass: an animal compared, by theologians of Piero's time, to a singer of burlesque, lewd ditties. Piero was using his art to counsel virtue, to encourage faith and to lend a sense of renewed wonder to those contemplating the miracle of the birth of Christ. But he was also contributing to a long tradition of animal calumny in Western European paintings of the Nativity. He was, you might say, kicking ass.

(Photographs omitted)