In this holiday season, we routinely send and receive dozens of Christmas cards with scenes ranging from lumpy little snowmen to deeply religious painted masterpieces depicting the nativity, shepherds, or magi. With the possible exception of crucifixions, the nativity is probably the most painted religious scene handed down to us by the Christian artists of the past thousand years in which painted religious works survive. Although the Italians were most fond of paintings of the Madonna and Child which, broadly speaking, fall into the general category of nativity scenes, often the Christ Child is depicted as just that, a young child, rather than a newborn baby.
It remained for the artist of northern Europe to bring us some of the most moving scenes of Christ's birth in the traditional sense. Artist like Matthias Grunewald and Robert Campin painted exquisite little (some not so little as well) masterpieces of intricate design, detail, and symbolism. Often these were in the form of altarpieces sometimes called triptychs (three folding panels) or diptychs (two panels) designed for what was then a portable priesthood, taking mass to small communities with only rudimentary churches.
Campin's triptych Merode Altarpice, an annunciation, is perhaps the most impressive, of these, depicting in the first panel the kneeling donors of the work peering through an open door to the second panel where an angel appears to the figure of Mary in contemporary dress, seated before a fireplace amidst the trappings of a typical Flemish room of the time. In the third panel, appears a (much too old) representation of Joseph, at work in his carpenter shop, building mousetraps. The painting abounds with symbolism such as the mousetraps, used to reinforce the belief that Christ was the bait with which Satan would be trapped.