The Ass and the Ox


Nativity of the Lord” Andrei Rublev 1405, Cathedral of the Annunciation, Moscow

As of today, I thought I might begin to concentrate on certain details of the Nativity iconography and explore their symbolism and theological significance in order to prepare my cave (a hermit as I am ūüėä) to receive the Word in the flesh. ¬†My starting point will be a symbolic¬†(and typological)¬†analysis of the ox and the ass figures in the nativity iconography.

Generally speaking, the presence of any animals in the Nativity icon is in¬†addition to any symbolic¬†meaning a theological statement of restoration. It reminds us, I think, that all creation worships God ( the stars and the sun and even the dumb animals). That which was brought about by Adam’s transgression meant that¬†the dominion he was given in Genesis¬†over the birds of the air, the fish of the sea and the animals on the land was corrupted, made incomplete and he started eating that which was originally meant for companionship.¬†When the Word who becomes flesh ¬†is born, He who made Heaven and Earth and all that is in it, ¬†it is only fitting that representatives of His creation are there to worship and adore the mystery of the Incarnation.

Revelation 5:13                
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‚ÄúTo him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!‚Ä̬†

Specifically now to the ox and the ass. “These two manger animals are ubiquitous in Nativity images.¬† They peer over the new-born Christ child in wonderment, usually with their muzzles¬†close to¬†the child,¬†as if to warm him with their breath.¬† Their significance should be plain: The ass carries Jesus into Egypt, away from the murderous Herod who, like Pharoah, orders the slaughter of infants.¬† (The flight into Egypt in Matthew‚Äôs gospel is the first of many Jesus/Moses parallels.)¬† Later, the ass will carry him into the¬†holy city of Jerusalem to the acclaim of the crowd: ‚ÄúHossana!¬† Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.‚Ä̬†The ass who greets the Lord at his birth is the same ass who bears him into Egypt and carries him to his death¬†at Jerusalem¬†where he is hailed as¬†‚Äúking of Israel‚Ä̬†but crucified as a common criminal.¬† The red ox stands as a stark and basic ¬†symbol of Hebrew cultic sacrifice.” (1)

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 and stable 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.  David Clayton, on the New Liturgical Movement blog, has written a detailed piece on the subject, and I will go through the basics while adding a few more aspects he does not mention.


Nativity scene on a 4th century sarcophagus from Italy

When reading comments on the nativity (for example in Ouspensky‚Äôs ‚ÄúThe Meaning of Icons‚ÄĚ) one finds that the inclusion of this detail is a reference to the prophecy of Isaiah:

The ox knows his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood.


Some apocryphal texts have the ass and the ox worshiping the Christ child, such as the gospel of pseudo-Matthew:

Therefore, the animals, the ox and the ass, with him in their midst incessantly adored him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Habakkuk the prophet, saying, ‚ÄúBetween two animals you are made manifest.‚ÄĚ


The Nativity – Icon in the Monastery of St. Catherine
[Many thanks to Bill M. for the link and drawing attention to the look on the ox’s face¬†ūüė䬆The icons of St Catherine‚Äôs, being isolated and in dry desert conditions meant that their icons have survived remarkably well, making it is a treasure of pre-Iconoclast iconography] (2)

nativity9.jpgFreiburg, Couvent des Cordeliers / Franziskanerkloster, MS 9, fol. 11r. 

What though is the relationship between the ox and the ass, why are these animals paired together so?¬† We will often read that 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 ‚Äúclean‚ÄĚ animal, and the ass is an ‚Äúunclean‚ÄĚ animal according to dietary proscription in the Old Testament.

Mixing the clean and the unclean is related very tightly to the mixing of Jews and Gentiles.  The clearest example of this is in St-Peter’s vision of the clean and unclean meats placed together, which signify the entry of Gentiles into the body of the Church.  Indeed there is a Mosaic law which I have never seen quoted in relation to the Nativity Icon, but which seems to hold one of the keys to the ass and the ox:

Thou shall not plow with an ox and an ass yoked together.

What is proscribed, the yoking of the clean and unclean, the bringing together of the ‚Äúinside‚ÄĚ and ‚Äúoutside‚ÄĚ can only be accomplished without sin by the Christ, the incarnation of the Logos.¬†¬†In fact, even St-Paul following this tradition, uses the same imagery to warn Christians not to be ‚Äúyoked‚ÄĚ with unbelievers.


This brings out another meaning, which is related to the incarnation and its relation to universality of the Church.¬† The ass is a beast of burden, a ‚Äúmindless‚ÄĚ strength which was created to ‚Äúcarry‚Ä̬†.¬† In this respect, the ass is a symbol of corporality¬†itself.¬† One should not be surprised that the symbol of the unclean and ‚Äúouter‚ÄĚ is analogical to fallen corporal existence and sensuality.¬†This can be seen so strongly in the hesychastic¬†tradition in its relationship between the heart and the senses.¬†¬†The ‚Äúouter‚ÄĚ part, corporality, the senses, the¬†Gentile,¬†are related to the garments of skin, which¬†we have discussed before, and¬†this periphery can be seen as¬†protecting but also carrying what is precious, like the shell of the ark‚Ķ


Icon of the Nativity carved in linden by Jonathan Pageau

It therefore follows naturally that stories such as the talking ass of Balaam are seen as prefigurations of the incarnation in sources as early as St-Irenaeus, or that it is so important for Christ be found riding an ass (even in later Rabbinical Judaism, the ass and colt of Zecharia’s prophesy are seen as representing the Gentiles) .  These Old Testament images, like the joining of the ass and the ox in the icon of the Nativity, are symbolic of the joining of extremes, the union of the spiritual and corporal, the clean and unclean, the inside and outside and ultimately the uncreated and created in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ. (3)




In the Eye of the Storm


Silver Helix (1)


‚ÄúHell is empty and all the devils are here.‚Ä̬†

‚Äē¬†William Shakespeare,¬†The Tempest



There was once a wave in the ocean, rolling along, enjoying the warmth of the sun and the swiftness of the breeze.

It smiled at everything around it as it made its way toward the shore.

But then, it suddenly noticed that the waves in front of it, one by one, were striking against the cliff face, being savagely broken to pieces.

‚ÄėOh God!‚Äô it cried. ‚ÄėMy end will be just like theirs. Soon I, too, will crash and disappear!‚Äô

Just then another wave passing by saw the first wave’s panic and asked:

‚ÄėWhy are you so anxious? Look how beautiful the weather is, see the sun, feel the breeze‚Ķ‚Äô

The first wave replied:

‚ÄėDon‚Äôt you see? See how violently those waves before us strike against the cliff, look at the terrible way they disappear. We‚Äôll soon become nothing just like them.‚Äô

‚ÄėOh, but you don‚Äôt understand,‚Äô the second wave said.

‚ÄėYou‚Äôre not a wave. You‚Äôre a part of the ocean.‚Äô (2)




Katsushika Hokusai‚Äôs¬†Under the Wave off Kanagawa, also called¬†The Great Wave¬†has became one of the most famous works of art in the world‚ÄĒand debatably the most iconic work of Japanese art. The Great Wave is part of the legendary series Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji. (3) “The preeminence of The Great Wave ‚ÄĒsaid to have inspired both Debussy’s La Mer and Rilke’s Der Berg‚ÄĒcan be attributed, in addition to its sheer graphic beauty, to the compelling force of the contrast between the wave and the mountain. The turbulent wave seems to tower above the viewer, whereas the tiny stable pyramid of Mount Fuji‚ÄĒJapan‚Äôs sacred, national symbol of Beauty, Spirituality and Immortality–sits in the distance. The eternal mountain is envisioned in a single moment frozen in time.


Hokusai characteristically cast a traditional theme in a novel interpretation. In the traditional meisho-e (scene of a famous place), Mount Fuji was always the focus of the composition. Hokusai inventively inverted this formula and positioned a small Mount Fuji within the midst of a thundering seascape. Foundering among the great waves are three boats thought to be barges conveying fish from the southern islands of Edo.” Nonetheless, “Hokusai has arranged the composition to frame Mount Fuji. The curves of the wave and hull of one boat dip down just low enough to allow the base of Mount Fuji to be visible, and the white top of the great wave creates a diagonal line that leads the viewers eye directly to the peak of the mountain top.”(4)


To the Japanese eye, accustomed to reading from right to left‚ÄĒthe great claw of a wave appears almost to tumble into the viewer‚Äôs face, the surging breakers may seem to swamp the boaters, even Mount Fuji appears fragile, about to be engulfed by the uncontrollable energy of the water, and still ¬†the humans in their tiny boats “doomed” to perish in the sea¬†do not look panicked! On the contrary, they look like hanging to their rows in full discipline. It looks like they are experienced and know how to cope with such a situation.¬†(5)
















Jennifer Rundlett, a fellow blogger, sees ‚Äúthrough‚ÄĚ its art ‚Äúthe many trials of life and how overwhelming we often find them, being so focused battling our problems, and trying not to be consumed by them‚ÄĚ, whereas ‚Äúthe wave is pointing our eye to [Mount Fugi] the focal point or meaning‚Ķ.that beauty and immortality is in how we ride out these storms.‚ÄĚ (6)


This Japanese painting brought to my mind an¬†English Romanticist,¬†William Turner’s famous seas, stormy skies, sinking ships and¬†tempests studies, with a very different theme to Hokusai’s.



The power of the storm versus man’s inabilities was a main theme in Turner’s work. Dreadful catastrophe was a common theme in English romantic art period and Turner specifically painted themes of shipwreck a number of times throughout his life,¬†exploring the effects of an elemental vortex. The romantics had taken a liking to natural phenomena and shipwreck became a popular subject. 19th century Britain specifically was very familiar with shipwreck as it was a period of great English shipping. ¬†… The craftsmanship of these ships did not deter the fact that the man made vessel was still at the mercy of the wind.




Let us have a good look at Turner’s¬†most famous storm painting: The¬†Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth (1842),¬†Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth shows a ship off the English coast struggling to persevere through a storm. ¬†The steam-boat resides in the center of the vortex. ¬† Turner’s untamed brushwork creates a swirling composition of chaotic colors and lighting.¬†The swirling storm creates a composition that leaves the eye to circle around the canvas repeatedly. The black of the wind and the waves of the sea create a circle around the doomed ship. Through the windy peephole, the viewer can see the helpless ship at the mercy of nature’s violent motion. One can imagine the ship swaying to and fro as its crew desperately tries to take control of the sail and stay afloat.¬†In this context the vessel can be interpreted as a symbol of mankind‚Äôs futile efforts to combat the forces of nature.¬†


Snow Storm - Steam-Boat off a Harbour's Mouth exhibited 1842 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856


In Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth Turner uses a muted color palette. Pale blues and deep browns cover the canvas in swirling motions. Though the palette is predominately neutral, which usually creates a calming tone, the swirling motions and lighting create the chaotic effect Turner was going for. He wanted to simulate the true nature of a storm at sea. The bright white of the sail draws the eye directly to the ship, even amidst the swarming colors around it. Turner creates a pocket of light amidst a dark and shadowy canvas to illuminate the ship. Since he lights the ship in such a way, all focus is immediately drawn to the ship. The shadowing swirling winds only emphasize the ship more. The focus is relentlessly on the plight of the ship. This painting clearly¬†invokes fear in a man or keeps him in his place as the weaker. ¬†Here the emphasis is on the raw, merciless force of Nature and Man’s frailty and helplessness.¬†(7)


It is famously said that Turner conceived this image while lashed to the mast of a ship during an actual storm at sea¬†to get a better account of the wind and ocean and what the ship must’ve felt like in the midst of it. This seems to be nothing more than fiction, but the story has endured as a way of demonstrating Turner‚Äôs full-blooded engagement with the world around him, and is stunningly dramatized in the famous Mast scene of the mesmerising, highly¬†maginative and richly detailed 19th century period biopic Mr Turner¬†(2014)¬†


Khalil Gibran ¬†makes ample use of the “storm/sea/wave” imagery in “The Prophet” and explains how we all are “travellers” and “navigators” in the sea of life, our “pain being the breaking of the shell that encloses [our]¬†understanding”. (8)




For an auditory raw, rough storm experience, let us not forget Aretha Franklin’s duet with Joe Ligon in the old time gospel ¬†“I’ve Been In The Storm Too Long ”¬†

“I‚Äôve been in the storm‚Ķ too long, Lord too long
mmmmm… I’ve been in the storm… too Long, Lord too long
Lord, please let me…have a little more time, I need a little more time to pray
Oooh‚ĶI‚Äôve been in the storm too long‚Ķ”


Jesus walks on water, by Ivan Aivazovsky (1888)


Yet, whether competent or helpless, I personally want to bring God in all these “storms”. So that I can walk on the water, towards Him, and when I see ‚Äúthe wind boisterous, ‚Ķ [am] afraid; and beginning to sink‚ÄĚ, I can cry ‚Äúsaying, Lord, save me.‚ÄĚ And He immediately will stretch forth His hand, and catch me, and say unto me, ‘O thou of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt?’ (Matthew 14:29-31, KJB) And He will still the storm–within and without my mind–to a whisper and¬†hush¬†the waves of the ‘sea’ ¬†(Psalm 107:29) and (Mark¬†4:39).




Christ walking on the sea, by Amédée Varint


François Boucher Cathédrale Saint-Louis (1766) Versailles


Walking on water, by Veneziano, 1370.






  1. “I Capture The Majestic Power Of Ocean Waves”, amazing collection of underwater vortex and wave photographs at¬†
  2. ‚ÄúThe missing rose‚ÄĚ by Serdar Ozkan, cf.¬†Paulo Coehlo‚Äôs blog
  3. For the full collection, go to http://Source:
  4. The Metropolitan Museum of Art at For more analysis, watch Thompson, curator of the Hokusai exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, delving into the story behind this world famous print  at
  5. and and
  6. For more details, go to her inspirational blog site, dedicated to sharing with insights of God’s love through meditations using art and music, at
  8. ¬†Lebanese-American artist, poet¬†(1883 ‚Äď 1931), chiefly known in the English-speaking world for his 1923 book¬†The Prophet, an early example of¬†inspirational fiction,¬†including a series of philosophical essays written in poetic English prose, and the third best-selling poet of all time, behind¬†Shakespeare¬†and¬†Lao-Tzu¬†or¬†Lao-Tze.