Photo Vatican Museums

A rocky cave provides shelter for the infant Jesus in “Saint Bridget and Her Vision of the Nativity,” by the 14th-century Italian artist Niccoló di Tommaso. In the painting, Bridget (c. 1302–1373), the patron saint of Sweden, kneels at right. Bridget, who spent the latter half of her life on pilgrimages to Rome and the Holy Land, claimed to receive visions from Mary of the birth and passion of Jesus. These apparitions incorporate details from early Christian apocryphal texts that did not make it into the New Testament but were nevertheless widely read and illustrated.

The cave setting recalls the Protoevangelium of James, a second-century gospel in which Mary is overcome by labor pains en route to Bethlehem, and Joseph must direct her to the nearest private spot—a cave. It also recalls local Bethlehem tradition, which, since at least the second century A.D., has identified a Bethlehem cave (now beneath the Church of the Nativity) as the spot where Jesus was born. Jerome Murphy-O’Connor, the author of the accompanying article, argues that these early local traditions and apocryphal gospels, along with the independent witnesses of Matthew and Luke, support Bethlehem as the place of Jesus’ birth.