Hilary Hope Guise, professor of art history, Florida State University, lecturer and artist

The story of the nativity has been embroidered and repeated untold times in the artworks of centuries – yet it is impossible to find a nativity scene without an ox and an ass at the centre bending over the manger. Christian art evolved solely to tell the story to an illiterate world because people could not read, and had no access to the Bible. But the ox and the ass are not mentioned in the Gospel story so why are they in the paintings?

This lecture sets out to investigate this mystery. We are sent on a trail back to the pre-Christian and very early Christian worlds to find the powerful and ancient symbols embedded in their history and iconography. Why is the bull a symbol of royal sacrifice and why does the donkey carry the wood for the sacrifice of Isaac? Why does a single piece of Roman graffiti show a crucified man with an ass’ head? Why do we find a carved nativity scene from which the Virgin Mary and St Joseph are absent while the ox and ass are present?

The magi have always been thought to have been Persian and thus gentile, and the star has traditionally come from the East. There have been many theories as to what it was or even if it existed at all. The belief in a star prophetically announcing great events – around the birth and death of kings – was not a Christian tradition. There had been famous comets. But what about the gifts? These were said to be three and clearly named in the Gospel. How could they have come from the cold northern territories of Persia when neither the frankincense tree nor the African commiphora myrrha tree from which myrrh is extracted can exist so far north? Astrophysicists have found evidence for an exceptional light, and with computer modelling have recreated the night sky in Bethlehem on a night in November in 7BCE, the year Jesus was mostly likely to have been born.


Lecture titles

1.  The ox and the ass: silent watchers at the crib

2.  The wise men and the star: myth or truth?





DATE: Thursday 13–Friday 14 January
TIME: 11.15 am
COURSE FEES: R150 (online)R170 (livestream to lecture theatre on campus)