Skip to main content

Here we see the manger at night; aglow from a supernatural light radiated by the Christ Child. The rays of light, painted with glinting flecks of gold, illuminate the faces gathered around.

 

The Nativity at Night

Image: Geertgen tot Sint Jans, 'The Nativity at Night', possibly about 1490

The Virgin Mary leans over her son, hands together in prayer and mouth partially open in wonder.

She is mirrored by a host of tiny astonished angels who look down with expressions of delight. The foreshortening of the wings of the angel in the bottom left of the painting helps to draw us into the action and enclose the scene.

In the shadows, even the ox and ass are transfixed by the baby. Saint Joseph, standing behind Mary, seems to have just entered through a doorway and gasps at the miracle before him. 

Beyond the manger, we can see shepherds with their flock on a hill in the distance. They are grouped around a fire which casts a reddish glow, but it is the brilliant light shining from the almost phosphorescent angel in the sky that casts their long shadows down the hill.

This painting is an early example of compositional chiaroscuro intended to accentuate the contrasts between real light and supernatural light – the ‘claritas dei’; man-made light is pitiful and cannot compete with the light from heaven.

Jesus is described in the Bible as the light of light – 'the true light that lighteth the world.' But 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' and it eclipsed the light from Saint Joseph’s candle.

In this painting, it appears as though Joseph may have originally been holding a candle; it has disappeared after early restorations. However, you can still see his hand appear to shield something, and he seems to be illuminated by a dim light, similar to the fire in the background, that is much weaker than that of the divine sources of light.