The Russian iconography of the Nativity of Christ was inherited from the Byzantine Empire before the Mongol invasion and was based on descriptions of the birth of Jesus in the Gospels (Matthew 1:18–25; Luke 2:1–7), Christmas carols and such apocryphal compositions as the Gospel of St James: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed (and this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria). And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
The Infant Jesus lies in a manger in a black grotto in the centre of the icon. Mary reclines below on a scarlet bed, while an angel announces the good news to the shepherds at the top. The Magi follow the Star of David, which shines above them and lights up the grotto. On the other side, the kings bow to the Mother of God and bear gifts. The scene below depicts the washing of the Infant and Joseph with a shepherd.
The figure of Isaiah at Mary’s bedside, next to the cavern with the newly born Christ, recalls the Old Testament prophecy of Christ’s arrival in the world. Isaiah holds a scroll foretelling God’s assumption of human form and the birth of the Saviour: “Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). The image of Isaiah standing next to the manger with the Infant Jesus dates back to the eleventh century. Although it is encountered in Byzantine miniatures, the subject is extremely rare in icons.
Images of the birth of Christ and other illustrations of the Nativity cycle were popular in Byzantine and Old Russian art. Traditional scenes of the birth and washing of the Child and the Adoration of the Magi were supplemented in icons and frescoes by the compositions of the journey to Bethlehem, which preceded the Nativity of Christ, and the later subjects of the Massacre of the Innocents, the flight of St Elizabeth and St John the Baptist into the wilderness and the Flight into Egypt.