The Nativity

The earliest and most well-known event depicted in the stained glass windows is the birth of Christ, which is located on the west wall near the sanctuary. Since the Middle Ages artists have memorialized the Christmas story in the visual arts and thus we would expect to find it represented in the Chapel. The stained glass artist produced a unique and touching portrayal at the manger that not only makes visible before our eyes that night long ago when God became man but also hints in clever ways to other Biblical moments.
The Gospel of Luke tells us the most about how Mary and her husband Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to be enrolled in the census. When they arrived in Bethlehem there was “no room at the in.” and the only place for shelter was a stable. Mary gave birth and the only place to lay her son was a manger—an animal’s feeding bowl! Meanwhile, an angel of the Lord appeared to shepherds guarding flocks in a nearby field and proclaimed to them the quotes accompanying the image. At the top of the window the angel says, “Glory to God in the highest; and peace to men of good will.” (Luke 2: 14)  At the bottom he continues, “For this day is born to us a savior who is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 1: 11) Hearing these extraordinary words, the shepherds go in haste to Bethlehem, where they find the couple with their infant son in humble surroundings.
In the window, a youthful, sweet-faced Virgin Mary lovingly gazes upon the newborn she holds in her lap. Behind her, a much older St. Joseph looks concernedly down upon his adopted son. The baby Jesus does not return his parents’ gazes but rather looks intently at the young shepherd before him. Dressed in skins and rustic clothing, the signs of his profession, and with his hat in his hand, the young man kneels before the baby Jesus. With his facial features and hands he expresses both amazement and adoration. Next to him, an elderly man, a woman (identified by her headdress) and a boy holding a sheep look on at the miraculous scene before them. The manger—which appears more like a basket—with  the corner of a blanket falling over the side on the Virgin’s proper left suggests that young mother has just taken her son out of it to present him to the visitors.
The depiction of the shepherds here is rather odd in the tradition of Christian art. Though the Evangelist does not indicate the shepherds’ gender, artists typically portray them as male, perhaps because of their act of watching over sheep late at night in isolate spots. Our artist may have included a woman as well as individuals of varying ages to reflect the diverse visitors and families that come to the Chapel. The shepherd family certainly makes a fitting counterpart to the Holy Family. Moreover, artists rarely show the shepherds on bent knee before the Christ child, preferring to save this visual device for the Magi. Instead, they tend to depict the shepherds as either just arriving in the doorway or peering through the windows. The lack of an image of the adoration of the Magi at St. John’s might have prompted the artist to render the shepherds in poses of adoration.
Another unusual feature of the window is Mary’s gesture of lifting a corner of the blanket upon which Jesus sits. The strangeness of her hand movement prompts us to wonder if there is more to it than a doting mother’s attempt to make her baby comfortable. The artist seems to want us to ponder more deeply the relationship of the mother and child. Using the cloth as a key, we can easily read the figure of Jesus both as a baby upon his mother’s lap as well as the Eucharist upon the altar, with the blanket as the altar cloth. This interpretation is buttressed by the scene’s location near the sanctuary where daily the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Pushing the interpretation further we can interpret the baby Jesus as the bridegroom come to dwell in the Church (Mary).
The location of the image in the sanctuary near the high altar also implies a correspondence between the shepherds and congregation: the shepherds who meet the incarnate Savior in the window are similar to the faithful who encounter him in the Eucharist on the steps below. Certainly they provide role models for how the congregation should act in the presence of the Lord.
The window’s scene transpires in front of an abbreviated architectural setting that is little more than a backdrop to the action. The artist has included only those elements necessary to denote a stable: a cart with hay, wall, overhang and column.  The placement of the event outside, rather than inside the manger, as told by the Gospels, is consistent with artistic practice. Since the late Middle Ages artists have generally situated the birth of Jesus either outside of the stable or in the doorway leading to the sacred space. One reason for this visual strategy might be the medieval practice of hosting religious plays—known as Mystery Plays—on the front steps of churches. Another reason might be to make viewers feel as though they are participating in the event, as if it is happening just outside the church window at a neighboring building. Some details in the window could be read symbolically. The column above Joseph and Mary might be interpreted as an allusion to the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth. The thirteenth-century Franciscan friar known today as the Pseudo-Bonaventure in his Meditationes, an exposition on the life of Christ, likens Mary to a column because she did not feel pain while giving birth. Based on this and related texts, artists often include a column in nativity scenes. The nearness of the column to Mary suggests that it is more than an architectural feature and is perhaps a symbol. The colors worn by Mary could also be read symbolically: the white head scarf could denote her virginity and dark blue robe could signal her inevitable sorrow at the crucifixion, the event pictured in the adjacent window.