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.
Frank Skinner: And it’s the Nativity scene but it’s loads of angels, it’s an absolute angel-fest, there’s angels dancing round the bar, and you look up and you get, like, a view of heaven and the angels are all dancing in the streets in heaven. It’s like a massive party because Jesus is born. And I love the kind of weirdness of that, the magic of it.
The interesting thing about that painting as well is that Joseph looks really done in, you know the way expectant fathers go through it, especially when you think it isn’t your child – I suppose that’s particularly tough. And he wasn’t really in a position where he could go and beat up the father. He’d have stood no chance. And he looks, if you look at him in that painting, he looks so forlorn and down, while there are all these angels dancing… I feel really… it really changed my opinion of Joseph, that painting. I’ve never really thought about him before as a key figure. It must have been tough for him.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Three, January 2007