Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)
Jesus Christ was born for all people of all times. To illustrate this truth, Christians around the world often depict him as coming into their own culture, in the present time. The Italians, whose visual language was predominant during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, did it. In fact, when you think “Nativity,” you probably think of the church art from that age and country—not because it offers the most legitimate representations (they are no more “accurate” than the ones below), but because the Church held particular sway at that time, in that place.
Well, the center of Christianity has shifted; it is no longer in the West. And thus if we were to survey the Christian art being produced today, we would see that Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, and the settings they inhabit, have a much different look. We’d see Mary dressed in a sari or a hanbok; we’d see Jesus wrapped in buffalo skin, or silk. We’d see lizards and kangaroos instead of oxes and asses.
Historical accuracy is not the point; the point is to see Jesus as the Savior of your own people, as incarnated very close to you, and relevant to life today.
Here are nineteen contextualizations of the Nativity painted within the last century. Each work brings Jesus into a different place, in order to emphasize the universality of his birth.
Crow Nation (Montana-based tribe):
Democratic Republic of the Congo:
Update: For a new compilation, see “More Nativity Paintings from around the World.”