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Ox and ass before Him bow

Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece, left hand predella panel depicting the Nativity by Gentile da Fabriano (1423)

Public Domain

THERE IS no ass or ox in the Biblical narratives of the birth of Christ. Yet, besides the Christ Child himself, the ass and the ox are the most ancient elements in the iconography of the nativity. In fact the earliest example of a nativity known to us contains only the swaddled Christ in the manger flanked by the ox at his head and the ass at his feet.

Traditionally, the ox is seen as Israel, and the ass is seen as the Gentiles.  This comes from a very important distinction about the two animals.  The ox is a “clean” animal, and the ass is an “unclean” animal according to dietary proscription in the Old Testament. The Mosaic law also ruled: “Thou shall not plow with an ox and an ass yoked together.”

What is forbidden, the yoking of the clean and unclean, the Jew and the Gentile, can only be accomplished without sin by Christ.

–Adapted from “The Ass and The Ox in The Nativity Icon” by Jonathan Pageau.

O that my heart were so clean

as thy manger was!

But I am all filth, and obscene.

Yet if thou wilt, thou canst make me clean. 

  – Henry Vaughan

May the Bethlehem star lead me

to the sight of him who freed me….

Make me pure, Lord: thou art holy.

Make me meek, Lord: thou wert lowly.

  –Gerard Manley Hopkins


Jesus – Lord, for whom no room could be found in an inn,

Never let me close my door against thee

Nor against the least of my brethren in their need.        

    – Eric Milner-White

Human nature is like a stable inhabited by the ox of passion and the ass of prejudice; animals which take up a lot of room and which I suppose most of us are feeding on the quiet. And it is there between them, pushing them out, that Christ must be born and in their very manger he must be laid – and they will be the first to fall on their knees before him. Sometimes Christians seem far nearer to those animals than to Christ in his simple poverty, self-abandoned to God.   TAP

–Evelyn Underhill


Nativity scene on a 4th century sarcophagus from Italy

Public Domain

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