This is one of the most engaging and convincing early treatments of the Nativity as a night scene. The brilliant light in the foreground comes from the Christ Child in the crib. It illuminates the figure of the Virgin, who bends forward, hands joined in prayer, Saint Joseph in the background, and the figures of the delighted small angels to the left.

The radiance of the angel announcing the birth to the shepherds on the distant hillside provides another contrast between darkness and divine light. A third and lesser source of light comes from the shepherds' fire.

The idea of the infant Christ illuminating the Nativity scene comes from the writings of the 14th-century Saint Bridget of Sweden. She wrote that in her visions the light of the new-born child was so bright 'that the sun was not comparable to it'. A century later, the interest of artists such as Geertgen in depicting naturalistically the contrasts of extreme light and shade served to heighten the sense of the miraculous birth.

Key facts

Artist
Artist dates
about 1455/65; died about 1485/95
Full title
The Nativity at Night
Date made
possibly about 1490
Medium and support
Oil on oak
Dimensions
34 x 25.3 cm
Acquisition credit
Bought, 1925
Inventory number
NG4081
Location in Gallery