The Nativity Scene in the Stammheim Missal

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The Stammheim Missal is a book published by the Getty Museum Studies on Art Series, whose aim is to educate readers on both the cultural and historical aspects related to the art of a variety of different periods. The book is a representation of the richness of both the illustrations and the talents of the author, Elizabeth Teviotdale. One image that is particularly striking is the Nativity, or as some call it the Adoration of the Magi.

The central image is very peculiar in its presentation. Each of the biblical illustrations are looking upward. The Virgin is looking at the Christ child and the Christ child is looking up above. It seems as though the illustrator intended for that to be the case despite the many representations both in art and elsewhere where the Christ child is pictured with the Virgin. Second, the Virgin is encased or appears to be entombed while the Christ child is not alone, but there is no one around him but two animals in different colors - one being white with a bluish tint and the other in an orange-red. The Virgin is wearing a robe and is in a relaxed position, almost fetal like in appearance.

In an article in The Medieval Review by Annette Lermack, she describes how the images in the Stammheim Missal have a variety of different elements happening at once and that Teviotdale uses "composition, gestures, pattern, and color to create visual parallels throughout the manuscript, reinforcing the doctrinal messages embedded in the illustrations" (p.1). Teviotdale herself notes that the Nativity image introduces the reader to Christmas - and the birth of the Christ child. Jesus is lying in a manger and the animals (an ass and an ox) view him. She states that "their presence at Christ's birth is not attested in scripture" (66) but offers significant context to the image. Additionally, Teviotdale expresses that "Joseph is to the right of [the Virgin] and Ezekiel is at the left pointing toward a locked door below the Virgin and his scroll includes a quotation from his prophecy" (66). This explains why the Virgin is alone - she can be interpreted as being protected by God as she is in scripture both pre, during and after the birth of Christ. Additionally, Teviotdale states that the top images point to how Jesus was created for the sole purpose of saving humanity and providing a way for those seeking comfort and understanding of the heavens above. Jesus states in John 10:10, that "the thief cometh not but for to steal, and to kill and to destroy: I am come that they might have life and that they might have it more abundantly" (KJV). This scripture can be seen in the Nativity image in the top part as the savior is giving a scroll to who appears to be Moses.

In his book, You Shall Surely Not Die, The Concepts of Sin and Death as Expressed in the Manuscript Art of Northwestern Europe, Jill Bradley argues that a lot of art illustrating scripture is intense and explicit with the hope of appealing to a wide range of audiences and provoking discussion. He additionally states that the "Stammheim Missal, was [created to be a] theological standpoint" (467) meaning that the images reflected are often from the vantage point of the individual painting them. This is of course, true of all art in that the artist is working from their perspective on situations, circumstances, and beliefs.

The scroll that Jesus is giving to Moses in the top miniature can be interpreted in many different ways considering the scriptures presented both in the Old and New Testament. In Habakkuk 2:2, it reads: "and the Lord answered me, and said, write the vision and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it" (KJV). With the miniature, this can be interpreted as God handing Moses the scroll for the mere purpose that Moses had a journey to fulfill and play out. If the observer of the image were to connect the miniature to a scripture in the Old Testament, the scroll could be considered the way. Jesus remarks in John 14:6 that "I am the way, and the truth, and the life, no one cometh unto the Father, but by me" (KJV). The scroll could be seen as the "truth" that Jesus imparted upon individuals during his time on Earth.

The text on the scrolls in the miniature is Latin and an observer of the Nativity image could possibly compare it to Latin used in the Honorious of Autun's Speculum Ecclesiae, which means Mirror of the Church. Essentially, the observer could see the Nativity scene shown in the Stammheim Missal as a foretelling of the Christian walk as the Speculum Ecclesiae is. Given different individuals see unalike aspects in art, the interpretation could be the total opposite of what exactly each particular medium represents. Analysis of art has its own complexity. This is why each individual examining a piece of art can come up with a different interpretation (Mathis). This is perhaps why the writer feels that the top miniature in the center of Jesus handing the scroll to Moses is related to the scripture where God says in Isaiah 48:17 that "[He] is the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you and who directs you in the way you should go" (KJV). In the scripture, Moses depended on God to lead him to his blessings and to his truth.

When examining the sermons of Augustine and Aelfric on the Nativity and the images portrayed in the Stammheim Missal, there seems to be an agreement in all three that the birth of Jesus was necessary and his birth pointed to the beginning of the Christian Church. For Aelfric, his idea of Christ was that each individual Christian's faith was strengthened the day Jesus was born. Additionally, the narrow manger represents Jesus saving man from hell given man's sinful nature (White 108-110). Augustine states that the nativity scene was a spectacle of love that:

Christ as God was born of His Father, as Man of His Mother; of the immortality of His Father, of the virginity of His Mother; of His Father without a mother, of His Mother without a father; of His Father without limits of time, of His Mother without seed of His Father as the source of life, of His Mother as the end of death; of His Father ordering all days, of His mother consecrating this particular day. [...]What human being could know all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge hidden in Christ and concealed under the poverty of His humanity? For, 'being rich, he became poor for our sake that by his poverty we might become rich. He assumed our mortality and overcame death, He manifested Himself in poverty, but He promised riches though they might be deferred; He did not lose them as if they were taken from Him. How great is the multitude of His sweetness which He hides from those who fear Him but which He reveals to those that hope in Him! (1).

Augustine's purpose is to show the impressiveness surrounding the birth of Jesus as well as the glory of God. He also seeks to illustrate how each Christian should celebrate even more on the day that Jesus was born because of what Jesus did for His Church. This then is where the texts interconnect with the birth of the Christian Church. In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells Peter that "upon this rock, [he] will build [His] church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (KJV). This directly relates to the Augustine and Aelefric take on the Nativity shown in the Stammbeim Missal in that the Church was Christ's reason for being born. In other words, man sinned as a result of Adam's transgressions and then God sought to correct this error in order that man would not endure the judgment of God. His answer to sin was to send his son into the world to redeem man and build the Christian Church.

One of the most fascinating elements of the Nativity scene in the Stammheim Missal and the birth of Jesus, in general, is the location of where he was born. The miniatures in the image do not exhibit any form of location. An observer may believe based on scripture that it is indeed Bethlehem. Additionally, the image does not have a North Star that immediately displays itself. An individual looking at the image could reason that the North Star is exhibited in the pictures of the five men at each point of the image. In reasoning the birth of the Christian Church, scholars and intellectuals have debated the location.

Katzenellenbogen emphasizes that the Nativity and its location was heavily influenced by a need to counter the issues of religion in northern France. He rationalizes that the northern part of the Chartres cathedral is a refusal to acknowledge the heretical beliefs that existed about Christ (10-15). Essentially, the location of Christ's birth has caused a lot of discussions specifically pertaining to the creation of the Christian Church. Ultimately, the location does not matter necessarily but what matters is the fact that Jesus' birth was and is continually acknowledged by most, if not all individuals in society. Whether an individual believes in Jesus or not, there is a significant amount of literature and discussion on the man.

The Nativity image in the Stammheim Missal unlocks a noteworthy discussion on Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary through its many vast interpretations and reviews. Elizabeth Teviotdale finds the perfect balance between the medium of art and the diversity of religion to where the observer can discuss the image and its many hidden meanings for a long time. It is a perfect example of art's effects on the world and how much historical events factor into the culture of art.

Works Cited

Augstine. "Sermon On the Nativity." Holy Trinity, New Rochelle, Web. 2 Dec. 2013. < tivityAugustine.html

Bradley, Jill. You Shall Surely Not Die': The Concepts of Sin and Death as Expressed in the Manuscript Art of Northwestern Europe, C. 800-1200, Volume 2. Leiden, NL: BRILL, 2008. Print.

Katzenellenbogen, Adolf. Sculptural Programs of Chartres Cathedral. New York, NY: W Norton & Co Inc, 1964. Print.

King James Bible Online, Web. 1 Dec. 2013. <

Lermack, Annette. "The Stammheim Missal by Elizabeth C. Teviotdale." The Medieval Review (2012): Web. 2 Dec. 2013. <

Mathis, Miles. "Concerning Art Interpretation." Miles Mathis, Web. 3 Dec. 2013. <

Teviotdale, Elizabeth C. The Stammheim Missal. Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2001. Print.

White, Caroline C. Aelfric: A New Study of His Life and Writings. ebook. Lamson, Wolffe and Company, 1898. Print.