The 'Mystic Nativity' shows angels and men celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. The Virgin Mary kneels in adoration before her infant son, watched by the ox and the ass at the manger. Mary's husband, Joseph, sleeps nearby. Shepherds and wise men have come to visit the new-born king. Angels in the heavens dance and sing hymns of praise. On earth they proclaim peace, joyfully embracing virtuous men while seven demons flee defeated to the underworld.
Botticelli's picture has long been called the 'Mystic Nativity' because of its mysterious symbolism. It combines Christ's birth as told in the New Testament with a vision of his Second Coming as promised in the Book of Revelation. The Second Coming - Christ's return to earth - would herald the end of the world and the reconciliation of devout Christians with God.
The picture was painted a millennium and a half after the birth of Christ, when religious and political upheavals prompted prophetic warnings about the end of the world.
'The Mystic Nativity' was probably painted as a private devotional work for a Florentine patron.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Three, January 2007