There between an ox and a grey donkey Sleep, sleep, sleeps The Little Son One thousand divine angels, a thousand seraphim (They) fly around this great God of love.
I imagine that if a children's choir began to sing this very old Christmas hymn: There between an ox and a gray donkey having before their eyes this Nativity of Giotto, they would easily discover the main illustrations of these words of children that abound in this Christmas hymn composed on the model of a childish folk melody. It seems to me that these little singers would immediately see in the center of the painting of the crib "an ox and a donkey" near the baby Jesus with Mary at his side. Surely they would ask the question: Why are these animals in this place in front of "the little son, between the two arms of Mary."
We know that the presence of an ox and a donkey in the manger of Bethlehem is not mentioned in the Gospels but is inspired by the prophet Isaiah who reproaches Israel and its people for not knowing its God unlike the ox and the donkey: "The ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib, Israel knows nothing, my people understands nothing. (Is, 1: 1-3).
In this Nativity of Giotto we notice that "the little son" of this scene of the nativity scene is not at all sleeping (as the words of the hymn indicate) but that he is perfectly awake! In fact, he has his eyes open and they are fixed on the face of Mary who also looks him in the eyes for the first time. Mary's head bows slightly, a slight smile forms on her lips and her little boy seems to smile at her in return.
(Perhaps she is singing to him tenderly: Sleepy, sleep, the child will sleep The child’s gonna quickly fall to sleep Sleepy, sleep, the child will sleep The child soon’s gonna fall to sleep!...)
It is quite likely that our little singers would not have noticed this detail "of the little son" who does not sleep or this other detail that is at the very bottom of the crib: Another presentation of the Child Jesus in the arms of a midwife who is about to make him take his bath with the help of another companion.
The images of the two choirs of angels bearing these charming names of "a thousand divine angels, a thousand seraphim" would certainly have attracted the attention of our little singers who would have seen them first and admired them at length. It is quite rare, however, to find in a Nativity two choirs of angels, one inside the nativity scene and the other outside as Giotto does here.
We see in this painting that the angels arrive hastily from all sides. Twelve of them represent the celestial choir of the "thousand divine angels" who fly above the Mother and Child. These angels have half-celestial and half-earthly faces and their hands are joined together for prayer, but they wear robes that curve with a flower resembling musical notes. So they would be singing.
Above the roof, other angels (the " thousand seraphim?") converge to the star of Bethlehem, located at the central top of the painting and the golden rays descend on the
Newborn Child: "this great God of love". The Word became Flesh and suddenly from the heavens burst the songs of praise of the many seraphim who are "myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands" (Rev 5:11). "And suddenly", as St. Luke writes (Lk 2:13-14), "with the angel there was a great throng of the heavenly host praising God and singing, Glory to God, in the highest heaven and on earth peace to people of good will."
To express in colour this Glory of God appearing in the sky of Bethlehem, Giotto uses a shade of fine stone of an unparalleled azure blue. A Franciscan from Assisi, Enzo Fortunato, writes about this colour: "Everything is both so powerful and so quiet. Giotto eliminates special effects and uses that blue colour, unprecedented, 'so captivating, so moving' that no one can resist... The pigment has the same brilliance as gold, but more real: the starry vault is blue, the sky of (the Nativity) is blue. Mary's coat is blue. A deep, luminous but above all 'royal and real' colour."
Wishing you all the best for Christmas 2021 here is a short excerpt from the Christmas Psalm of St. Francis of Assisi: "This is the day the Lord has made; let us exult and be glad in it. For the most holy beloved child is given to us, and he was born on the way and placed in a manger because he had no place in the inn. Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to people of good will. Let heavens rejoice and earth exult, the sea and all that is in it be moved, let fields and all that is in them be glad. Sing to him a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth! "
Georges Morin, o.f.m.