Swaddled and lying on a bed of straw, the Christ Child appears helpless and vulnerable, yet he elicits the wonder of those around him.
The Virgin Mary, dressed in a red dress and green mantle, kneels, looking deeply into her son’s eyes and holding her hands together in prayer. Her slightly tousled hair indicates the recent birth of her son, yet she is otherwise poised and graceful.
Behind her is Joseph, shown in the traditional manner as an old man with grey hair. He rests his hands heavily on his staff, a reminder of his betrothal to Mary. His role in the scene is to act as witness to the birth of the Messiah.
The Holy Family have been joined by three shepherds. In the Gospel of Luke an angel announces the birth of Jesus and they journey to find the baby in Bethlehem. Here they range in age from the oldest shepherd in the foreground to the youngest, almost a child, in the background.
Closest to the baby are two angels, dressed in green and pink, in prayer. Finally an ox and an ass are also witnesses to the scene. Oxen and asses frequently appear in paintings of the Adoration and they represent a line from Isaiah: “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib”.
The Le Nain brothers worked together in Paris in the 17th century and usually signed their paintings ‘Lenain’, making it often impossible to distinguish works by each brother. Although well-regarded in their lifetimes, their reputation declined until they were rediscovered in the 19th century by Realist artists such as Gustave Courbet.