Today’s icon type is very easy to recognize. It is commonly called “The Four Births.”
It depicts the births of four figures very prominent in the Eastern Orthodox hierarchy of religious figures — Mary (Called the Mother of God), Jesus, John the Forerunner (John the Baptist) and Nicholas of Myra, commonly called Holy Nicholas the Wonderworker.
The iconography of the birth and early lives of biblical figures such as Mary, Jesus, and John is not based simply on the biblical accounts; they are combined with extra-biblical apocryphal stories such as found in the Protoevangelion of James and the Pseudoevangelium of Matthew.
Three of these “birth” types — that of Mary, of John, and of Nicholas, are very similar, as one can see, because iconographers had little information to work with, so they just repeated similar elements: a reclining mother, a father seated at right, three attendants, and the newborn child washed by a serving maid.
The birth of Jesus in this example is a mixture of the earlier “Eastern” type combined with some elements from the “Western” type that were adopted into Russian iconography, primarily in the 18th and 19th centuries. It depicts Mary in a seated position beside the infant Christ (rather than lying down and facing away from him, as earlier), and it includes the three Magi at left and a shepherd at right. At front left, Joseph is shown with an old shepherd, who traditionally is seen as the Devil trying to tempt Joseph to doubt the virgin birth (“Hey, come on Joe — you’re not really buying that cock and bull story, are you?”). That comes from the earlier nativity form, as does the scene at right, the child Jesus washed by a serving maid.
It is interesting that the cave in which Mary gives birth is a detail found in the Protoevangelion of James,generally believed to date to the 2nd century (found also in the Pseudoevangelium of Matthew), and was a matter of controversy in early Christianity because in the pre-Christian Mithraic religion, the sun god Mithras was born from a rock (not surprisingly, on December 25th), and his rites were celebrated in a cave. The early Christian martyr (and Eastern Orthodox saint) Justin Martyr, in the latter half of the 2nd century, thought that the Mithraic use of a cave was a deceit of the devil, whom he believed inspired such similarities to Christianity among the pagans. He had this to say in his Dialogue with Trypho:
“And when those who record the mysteries of Mithras say that he was begotten of a rock, and call the place where those who believe in him are initiated a cave, do I not perceive here that the utterance of Daniel, that a stone without hands was cut out of a great mountain, has been imitated by them, and that they have attempted likewise to imitate the whole of Isaiah’s words?…” (LXX)
“‘…But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him. I have repeated to you,’ I continued, ‘what Isaiah foretold about the sign which foreshadowed the cave; but for the sake of those who have come with us to-day, I shall again remind you of the passage.’ Then I repeated the passage from Isaiah which I have already written, adding that, by means of those words, those who presided over the mysteries of Mithras were stirred up by the devil to say that in a place, called among them a cave, they were initiated by him. ” (LXXVIII)
Each of these four births is also found as a separate icon type, whether in its basic form or with some elaboration, as in this example of the “Birth of the Most Holy Mother of God”: