The Christmas Tale As Told Through Historical Paintings
Art4 Minutes Read

The Christmas Tale As Told Through Historical Paintings

December 25, 2021 Share

The Christian tale of Christmas has no lack of master paintings when it comes to the most popular national holiday in the United States.

Christmas. Up goes the tree, on go the lights. There really is no place like home for the holidays. An exciting season of presents and parties only a scrooge could hate. But where did all the traditions of the Christmas tale start? 

There is a hidden history behind all of our modern customs. Some of the origins are dark and mystical while others are simply about making money. 

Today it may be represented by presents and Santa Claus, but this popular holiday had another origin story. 

Depending on which culture you ask, Christmas could be related to many different things. But in the historical art world, different interpretations and depictions of the famous day are anything but short of. 


The most prevalent meaning of Christmas comes from the Christians who celebrate Jesus’ birthday. What’s interesting to know is that it took centuries after Christianity spread before Christmas became an accepted holiday. 

Nowadays, modern Christmas tales can be traced back to the story of Saint Nicholas, who has slowly turned into the Santa Claus character we all know and love today. 

Common traditions around the world include decorating a tree, sending out family Christmas cards, baking cookies for Santa, exchanging gifts, going to church, and sharing a feast. 

According to ArtNet, the lack of literacy in pre-Renaissance and Renaissance times led the Catholic Church and wealthy merchants to commission a large number of painters to tell the story of the origins of Christianity.

Artists and painters were in constant competition with each other to get lucrative Church contracts, which consequently led to some of the most stunning masterpieces in Western art. 

Here we re-tell the Christmas tale through the most beautiful old master paintings to date.

Sandro Botticelli – The Annunciation (1498)

Christmas tale

The subject of the painting is the Annunciation, in which the Archangel Gabriel visits the Virgin Mary to ‘announce’ to her that she has been chosen by God to bear the Christ child should she accept this invitation.

Rembrandt – Dream of Joseph (1645)

Christmas tale

The painting shows Christ’s earthly father who agrees to wed Mary when he discovers she is pregnant. In the gospel of Matthew, God sends an angel to Joseph in a dream to explain the divine conception and instructs him to name the child Jesus.

Hugo van der Goes – Mary and Joseph on the Way to Bethlehem (1475)

Christmas tale

The painting shows Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem. This is illustrated by Mary’s advanced pregnancy depicting the ageing Joseph carefully guiding his wife down the steep and rocky mountain.

Pieter Bruegel The Elder – The Census at Bethlehem (1566)

Christmas tale
‘The Census at Bethlehem’ (c1611) by Pieter Brueghel the Younger

Mary and Joseph are on their way to be registered in a census ordered by the Romans.

Caravaggio – Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence (1609)

Christmas tale

This large-scale painting shows the Virgin Mary resting and gazing at the child she’s just given birth to.

Benozzo Gozzoli – The Procession of the Magi (1459-1461)

This multi-panel fresco located in the chapel of the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence shows not the three kings, but a procession of thirty-three on the way to Bethlehem to praise the newborn baby Jesus.

Rubens – The Adoration of the Magi (1609-1610)

Depicting the three kings worshipping and offering gifts to the newborn son of God.

Since then Christmas has become an annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus Christ, observed primarily on December 25 as a religious and cultural celebration among billions of people around the world. 

From gift wrapping to Christmas trees, a department store Santa’s and beyond, what started as a religious holiday has taken on commercial significance. Either way, the art of historical paintings will never change. 

They will always tell a story through the eyes of those who choose to see it.

Seasons Greetings From All Of Us At Don’t Die Wondering!

SEE MORE: Most Memorable Art In History | Top Paintings That Changed The World