On the opening page of the Abbey Bible, the first image we encounter is this roundel containing a scene of the Nativity of Christ.
According to Christian tradition, late in her pregnancy Mary traveled with Joseph to Bethlehem for a census, where they were turned away from the inn because there was no room. In the image, we see a red ox and a blue ass watching over a humble manger in a cave. It is only too easy to imagine the couple’s plight based on such images: a young woman forced to give birth in an unfamiliar place without help, her husband worried that he has provided inadequately for his family, and their overwhelming happiness when the baby is born healthy.
It might seem surprising to begin the first page of the Bible, which discusses the creation of the world, with images from Christ’s story, but medieval Christians saw in the beginning of Christ’s life on earth the promise of redemption from the original sin of Adam and Eve.
Today, in the midst of the holiday season, with New Year’s rapidly approaching, this image reminds me of the importance of providing shelter to the homeless, the joy of family and children, and the promise that every January 1st holds of a new beginning for everyone.
The Manuscript Files is an occasional column featuring details from manuscripts in the exhibition Gothic Grandeur: Manuscript Illumination, 1200–1350, on view in two rotations at the Getty Center through May 13, 2012.