Gertrud Schiller, Iconography

An ox and ass flank Jesus’ crib on this stone fragment of a gabled sarcophagus from Rome. One of the earliest extant Nativity scenes, the relief dates to about 375 C.E. It is now in secondary use, as part of the pulpit in the Church of Sant’Ambrogio, in Milan.

Ubiquitous in images of the Nativity (see cover and Robert Campin painting of “The Nativity”), the beasts derive from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew: “[Mary] put her child in a manger, and an ox and an ass worshiped him. Then was fulfilled that which was said through the prophet Isaiah: ‘The ox knows his owner and the ass his master’s crib.’”

The swastikas, rosettes and other geometric designs that surround the scene were widely depicted in the ancient world. The cocks pecking at corn from cornucopias may be part of a tradition of portraying bucolic scenes on sarcophagi to symbolize the paradise to which the deceased had gone.