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The Nativity

Early Byzantine
end of 7th century - 8th century
9.3 cm x 19.1 cm x 0.6 cm (3 11/16 in. x 7 1/2 in. x 1/4 in.)

On view


Additional Images
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Additional Image Detail, Joseph
Detail, Joseph
Additional Image Detail, Salome
Detail, Salome
Additional Image Detail, Virgin
Detail, Virgin
Additional Image Reverse
Additional Image Reverse

This carved image appears at first to be an eyewitness depiction of the Nativity. The Virgin reclines on some bedding, resting from her labor; the new-born Jesus lies in swaddling clothes behind her, with an ox nearby; Joseph and the midwife sit, each with head in hand, pondering the mystery of the event. All of these narrative details seem to describe this turning point in sacred Christian history as a witness might have observed it. Yet there are other elements that no eyewitness would have seen. Jesus rests on a large, block-shaped altar instead of in a manger. This is, in fact, what pilgrims would have seen hundreds of years later to pilgrims when visiting the shrine of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In the grotto below the Church of the Nativity, there was a large masonry altar with an arched niche that displayed Christ’s swaddling cloth as a holy relic. This image as a whole blends the event of the Nativity with a pilgrim's visit to the shrine, intermingling past and present against an elaborate architectural backdrop of a cityscape standing for Bethlehem.

The horizontal orientation of this plaque suggests that it was not a freestanding icon, but a revetment for a furnishing of some kind, possibly an episcopal throne, an altar, or a door. It belongs to a series of fourteen ivory plaques that scholars once associated with a chair given by the Emperor Herakleios (610–41) to the Cathedral of Grado, northeast of Venice, but iconographic evidence points to a date in the late seventh or eighth century.

- J. Hanson

A. Darcel, "Exposition rétrospective de Lyon," Gazette des Beaux-Arts 16 (1877): 181.

J. B. Giraud, Recueil descriptif et raisonné des principaux objets d'art ayant figuré à l'exposition rétrospective de Lyon, 1877, exh. cat., Lyon, Palais Municipal des Expositions, (Lyons, 1878), 52, no. 811.

G. Migeon, "Collection de M. G. Chalandon," Les Arts (June 1905): 23-24, fig. p. 22.

Marquise de Ganay and S. d. Ricci, Exposition d'objets d'art du moyen âge et de la renaissance, tirés des collections particulières de la France et de l'étranger, exh. cat., Paris, Hôtel de Sagan, May-June 1913 (Paris, 1914), 51-52, no. 102.

A. Goldschmidt, Die Elfenbeinskulpturen aus der romanischen Zeit, XI.-XIII. Jahrhundert, 4 (Berlin, 1926), 35-36.

L. Becherucci, "Gli Avori di Salerno," Rassegna storica salernitana 2 (1938), esp. 78.

The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 105, 117, no. 230.

C. Diehl, Byzantium: Greatness and Decline, Rutgers Byzantine series (New Brunswick, N.J., 1957), fig. p. 142.

Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 83, no. 290.

K. Weitzmann, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Vol. 3, Ivories and Steatites (Washington, D.C., 1972), 37-42, no. 20, pl. 19-20.

———, "The Ivories of the So-called Grado Chair," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 26 (1972): 45-91.

J. Engemann, "Palästinische Pilgerampullen im F. J. Dölger-Institut in Bonn," Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 16 (1973): 5-27, esp. 18, pl. 13b.

K. Weitzmann, "Loca Sancta and the Representational Arts of Palestine," Dumbarton Oaks Papers 28 (1974): 38-40, fig. 15.

W. F. Volbach, Elfenbeinarbeiten der Spätantike und des frühen Mittelalters (Kataloge vor- und frühgeschichtlicher Altertümer 7, 3. Aufl. (Mainz am Rhein, 1976), no. 249.

Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century, ed. K. Weitzmann, exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nov.19, 1977-Feb. 12, 1978 (New York, 1979), 582-583, no. 521.

C. Mango, "The Byzantine Collection," Apollo 119 (1984): 21-29, fig. 9.

W. Loerke, "'Real Presence' in Early Christian Art," in Monasticism and the Arts, ed. T. Verdon (Syracuse, 1984), 32-51, esp. 36, fig. 1.5.

A. Cutler, The Craft of Ivory : Sources, Techniques, and Uses in the Mediterranean World, A.D. 200-1400 (Publications / Dumbarton Oaks, Byzantine Collection 8), (Washington, D.C., 1985), 14, fig. 16, and passim.

L. Kötzsche-Breitenbruch, "Windel und Grablinnen," Jahrbuch für Antike und Christentum 29 (1986): 181-87.

E. Neubauer, Die Magier, die Tiere, und der Mantel Mariens: über die Bedeutungsgeschichte weihnachtlicher Motive (Freiburg, 1995), 56-57.

C. L. Connor, The Color of Ivory: Polychromy on Byzantine Ivories (Princeton, 1998), 85, no. 49.

G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 128, pl. p. 129.

L'enigma degli avori medievali da Amalfi a Salerno, ed. F. Bologna, exh. cat., Museo Diocesano di Salerno, Dec. 20, 2007-Apr. 30, 2008 (Pozzuoli, 2008), 66, 69, 155, 318, 344, figs. 48, 51.

S. Curcic, E. Hadjitryphonos, K. E. McVey, and H. Saradi, Architecture as Icon: Perception and Representation of Architecture in Byzantine Art, exhibition catalogue, Princeton University Art Museum, March 6 - June 7, 2010, (Princeton, N.J.: New Haven, 2010), 188-189, no. 16.

H. C. Evans and B. Ratliff, eds., Byzantium and Islam: Age of Transition, 7th-9th Century. Metropolitan Museum of Art ed. (New York and New Haven [Conn.], 2012), 46-47, no. 24G.

P. Cesaretti and B. Hamarneh, Testo agiografico e orizzonte visivo: ricontestualizzare le Vite dei saloi Simeone e Andrea, BHG 1677-115z. Testi e studi bizantino-neoellenici 20 (2016), fig. 1

Exhibition History
Lyon, Palais du Commerce, "Exposition rétrospective de Lyon," 1877.

Paris, Croix-Rouge Française, "Exposition d'Objecs d'art du Moyen age et de la Renaissance…Ancien Hôtel de Sagan," 1913.

New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, "Age of Spirituality: Late Antique and Early Christian Art, Third to Seventh Century," Nov. 19, 1977 - Feb. 12, 1978.

Washington, D.C., Dumbarton Oaks, "The Craft of Ivory," Oct. 22, 1985 - Jan. 6. 1986.

Princeton, Princeton University Art Museum, "Architecture as Icon," Mar. 6-Jun. 6, 2010.

Acquisition History
Collection of Albin Chalandon, Lyon.

Collection of Georges Chalandon, Paris.

Purchased from Galerie Les Tourettes S. A., Basel (Otto Wertheimer, Paris), by Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Washington, D.C., July 1951.

Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, D.C.