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The Virgin is shown in the centre of the icon, lying in a contemplative state after having given birth to the Saviour in a cave in the desert. Christ is seen behind the Virgin wrapped in swaddling clothes and laying in a cot. On the left we see the kings bending over in adoration at the child. On the right we see a shepherd gazing at the miraculous birth. In the lower right two midwives bathe the newly born child. On the lower left Joseph is shown sitting in a bemused state, being tempted by the devil who has disguised himself as a hermit.
The iconography is taken from the Gospels (Mat. 1:18–25, 2:1–12; Luke 2:11–20), and the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James. The latter is the source of the cave setting; a feature that distinguishes the imagery from western versions of the Nativity, where the event takes place in a stable. The liturgical feast was developed, both in the west and in the east, by the end of the 4th century. All the main features of the Eastern imagery are in place by the 6th century.
Our version is an excellent example of early 16th century icon-painting from Pskov, one of the most significant regions in the creation of medieval Russia icons. The main features indicating the icon was created in this celebrated region are: the composition, the serious faces, the colouring - cinnabar, reddish-brown ochre, and bluish-green, are the 'favourite combinations' used by Pskovian artists - and the depiction of mountains with their crisp white leshchadka (Old Slavonic, "split rock").
The composition is close to another version of the Nativity - which has also been attributed to Pskov, early 16th century - in the Pskov State Historical, Architectural and Fine Arts Museum-Reserve (see fig. a). The main difference in this composition is the inclusion of the angels at the top of the scene and the two shepherds to the right of the Virgin, whereas our version only has one shepherd. Though the face and physicality of the shepherd is very close (see details below). Another interesting similarity is the depiction of the kings (see details below).
One of the most distinctive features of Pskov icons are their serious faces that sometimes have a severe expression, black eyes with white highlights, imparting a powerful depth to the figures, at once formidable and engaging. As Irina Rodnikova writes: 'The Pskov icon is distinguished by a highly contemplative approach, felt in the spirituality of the severe faces of its saints, faces scorched with an indomitable inner flame of faith...' The expression of these faces can also be connected to a textual and liturgical tradition (especially in the early Christian period) of invoking a sense of divine 'fear' and 'awe' in the worshipper, especially during the Eucharist.
Yet the Pskov style balances this sense of fearfulness with a deeply contemplative gaze and inner luminosity that is conveyed through the warm, glowing light that the flesh emits. For example, this is most clearly seen in the face of the Mother of God in our icon, with its curved eyebrows and dark, piercing eyes, yet warm glow. If we compare this detail with other Pskov icons we find a corresponding expression (see details below).