Christmas is one of the most celebrated holidays throughout the world. It has slightly evolved throughout the years as certain cultures change, but the overall purpose and theme has remained intact.
This holiday has been one that Christians have observed for many centuries and it was widely popular even before the Italian Renaissance era.
Artists across Europe and other parts of the world where the Christian religion is prominent have created paintings which depict some of the most pivotal moments in the story of the birth of Christ.
Some of the most famous artists from the Renaissance era are known to have created paintings of the nativity scene or other moments from this famous story of Jesus’ birth.
Here are our selections for the most famous Christmas paintings ever done.
Famous Christmas Paintings
1. The Census at Bethlehem – Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Pieter Bruegel is one of the most celebrated members of a movement that’s commonly referred to as the Flemish Renaissance.
He’s often called Pieter Bruegel the Elder and is known for producing beautiful landscape works and paintings which focused on the poor, peasant class. He often did these paintings on very large canvas and included intricate detail in each work.
One of his most well-known paintings is titled The Census at Bethlehem and was created in 1566. This painting is remembered for its theme, as well as the specific colors Bruegel used.
It was one of the only paintings from this era that featured a large amount of snow on the landscape, which was something many artists rarely attempted to create simply because of the difficulty involved with painting snow onto a blank canvas.
The scene of the painting depicts Mary and Joseph, the parents of baby Jesus, as well as a number of other people gathered around for the annual numbering of the town’s people.
Bruegel painted a peculiar scene that infuses certain elements from the culture of the people living in present-day Netherlands and mixes them in with the Biblical story of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.
2. The Sistine Madonna – Raphael
Raphael is remembered as one of the most talented artists from the Italian Renaissance. He was known as a prolific painter, as well as a gifted and skilled architect who created a number of impressive paintings related to the Christian religion.
He is considered one of the three most prominent members of the Renaissance along with Leonardo da Vinci and Michaelangelo.
One of his most famous paintings is known as the Sistine Madonna. This work was completed in 1514 and features one of Raphael’s most celebrated works that depicts the Virgin Mary and an infant Jesus.
The painting was done on a very large canvas that was more than 100 inches tall and the work itself is considered to be one of the most famous Madonna paintings of all time.
Raphael’s depiction of the Virgin Mary and little Jesus shows the two figures walking on a cloud, with Mary holding the young infant in her arms.
On her right is Saint Sixtus and on her left is Saint Barbara, who were both very prominent religious figures in the 3rd century. Two small, winged cherubs lie at the feet of the Virgin Mary, looking up curiously in the direction of Saint Barbara.
3. Snow at Argenteuil – Claude Monet
Claude Monet is remembered as the father of the Impressionist movement, which took place in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Many of Monet’s works focus on landscapes or cityscapes, but he also created a number of other paintings that portray people engaged in various social settings as well.
One of the most highly-revered Christmas paintings done during the Impressionist era was a work that Monet completed in 1875.
Titled Snow at Argenteuil, this painting is one that features a heavy snow falling on the community of Argenteuil, which was Monet’s home at the time.
The winter of 1874 and 1875 was especially cold and harsh and brought thick blankets of snow across Paris and other parts of France around the time of the Christmas holiday.
Also Read: Famous Winter Paintings
It is said that Edouard Manet, another famous Impressionist painter, sought to paint a snow scene and had been searching for various works that depicted snow so he could get a sense of how he wanted to paint such a difficult setting.
Upon seeing Monet’s Snow at Argenteuil, Manet remarked that it was not possible for him to produce a better painting that included snow and he quickly discarded the idea.
4. The Mystical Nativity – Sandro Botticelli
It was common for many artists during the Renaissance to depict earthly scenes along with heavenly beings in the same work.
One such painting was done by Sandro Botticelli and focused on the well-known nativity scene in which Christ was born in a manger outside an inn located in Bethlehem.
The work is titled The Mystical Nativity and was completed in 1501, during the height of the Italian Renaissance era.
Botticelli was not as widely-recognized during his lifetime or shortly thereafter, but his works were focused on very heavily centuries later by art critics and other artists during the 19th century.
This particular painting features the baby Jesus lying in a trough filled with hay as the Virgin Mary looks down upon him and Joseph sits with his head in his arms. There is a symphony of angels surrounding the trio both on the earthly level, as well as overhead and underfoot.
5. Portinari Altarpiece – Hugo van der Goes
As the Italian Renaissance was just getting started in 1475, Dutch artist Hugo van der Goes was busy finishing a work that would become one of the more famous Christmas paintings from history.
Van der Goes had a knack for painting religious scenes and was commissioned to paint numerous altarpieces throughout his home in the Netherlands, as well as other areas.
His most famous work is considered to be Portinari Altarpiece, which was done as the altarpiece for the church inside the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, which was located in Florence, Italy at the time. It’s now displayed inside the Galleria degli Uffizi in Florence.
The painting is remembered as one of the more prolific works that focus on the Nativity, as well as the Adoration of the Shepherds. The work also includes many other religious figures, as well as angels who are looking toward the baby Jesus.
6. Winter Landscape – Caspar David Friedrich
Caspar David Friedrich is remembered as one of the most famous landscape artists in history. He created such masterpieces as Wanderer above the Sea Fog, as well as several other landscape paintings that have since become iconic in their own right.
One of Friedrich’s most famous paintings is one that he likely finished around 1811 and titled Winter Landscape. The painting is especially dark and depicts the land blanketed with a heavy covering of snow.
The dark grey clouds swirling overhead are a stark contrast from the brilliant white snow that sits beneath. Friedrich gives the viewer a sense of the frigid, barren landscape in this work that perfectly captures the bleakness of winter for most areas throughout the world.
7. The Adoration of the Shepherds – Caravaggio
Caravaggio is remembered as one of the most gifted artists from the Baroque time period. Many of his works center around religious settings and he typically portrayed each painting with a special sense of light and darkness that represents good and evil.
One of the most famous paintings from Caravaggio that centers on the Christmas holiday and the Nativity scene itself is known as The Adoration of the Shepherds.
This 1609 painting depicts the three shepherds adoring the infant Jesus as Joseph is also seen behind them. A light seems to be shining from behind the Virgin Mary into the dark manger.
8. The Adoration of the Shepherds – El Greco
Domḗnikos Theotokópoulos is commonly referred to as El Greco throughout the art world and is known as one of the most prolific artists from the 17th century in Spain. Like some of the Baroque artists of the time, El Greco often portrayed religious scenes with a high contrast between light and darkness to signify good and evil.
One of his most celebrated works is titled The Adoration of the Shepherds. This work is believed to have been created in 1614 and depicts a dark Nativity scene with the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and the three shepherds all illuminated by a light that seems to be originating from the baby Jesus.
Angels are seen hovering overhead, looking down on the little baby who would become the Messiah.
9. Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence – Caravaggio
Another one of Caravaggio’s most famous paintings related to the Christmas season is one that depicts the Nativity scene along with two of the more prominent religious figures from the early 17th century. The work is titled Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence and is believed to have been completed in the year 1600.
Much like Caravaggio’s other paintings from this time period, this painting features a heavy display of light and darkness that the artist does on a masterful level.
Few other painters were able to create such great differences between light and shadows as Caravaggio and all of his religious paintings have this same theme in regards to light and darkness.
This painting has an interesting history as it was stolen in 1969 from the Oratory of Saint Lawrence in Palermo, Italy. It is believed to be the work of organized criminal gangs and is still missing to this day.
10. The Adoration of the Shepherds – Giorgione
Our last Christmas painting is another painting that centers around the famous Nativity scene and the three shepherds that came to greet the baby Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. This painting was done by an Italian artist who is known simply as Giorgione.
Titled The Adoration of the Shepherds, this work is believed to have been completed some time around 1505 or 1510.
The artist is one of the more mysterious figures from the Italian Renaissance and there are numerous references to him, but only a handful of actual paintings that survive today are credited to Giorgione.
This painting features the Virgin Mary and Joseph kneeling in front of a cave with the baby Jesus lying on the ground at their feet, wrapped in cloth. It was common for artists to have the infant Christ at the center of the canvas, but this one has the three shepherds in the middle instead.
There is significant contrast between the dark grotto behind Mary and Joseph and the bright, sunlit valley to the left of the work.