The representation of the Nativity as seen here depicted by Cranach draws essentially on two sources. In the first instance the biblical text in the Gospel of Luke can be mentioned, according to which Joseph journeyed to Bethlehem with the pregnant Virgin for a population census. There Mary gave birth to Jesus in a stable, which was announced to the shepherds by the Lord¿s angel. The shepherds went in search of the Son of God and found him in the crib of a stable where they pay homage to him before telling the world of his birth. The second source touches on the vision of St Bridget of Sweden, a 14th century mystic. In Bridget¿s description ¿ fundamental to numerous Nativity and Adoration scenes from the Late Middle Ages - a divine light radiated from the naked infant Christ¿s body at his birth that was brighter than any candle.
In this small panel Cranach sets himself the appealing artistic task of visualizing radiant light in a night scene. He represents the infant Christ lying in stone trough surrounded by a throng of angels similar in age and appearance to the newborn. The angels hold their hands in an attitude of prayer from which a dense circle of light radiates. Mary kneels to the left of the crib and like the angels she also prays. Her long, brown curls fall over her shoulders. She gazes at the child and shows both humility and motherly love. A corona frames her head. The Virgin is enveloped in a dark blue coat, which she wears over a red undergarment. Joseph stands behind the crib dressed in brown. He has lowered his head, which is framed by grey curls but otherwise bald and holds a candle in his left hand. The light from the candle falls to the right. In the right hand zone of the painting the ox and ass crouch directly beside the child. Together with the Virgin and Joseph they create an inner circle, while the angels make up the outer circle surrounding the child. Both circles open out towards the viewer and invite him to see and worship the child. The shepherds are shown in the mid-ground at the right edge of the painting separated from the Holy Family by a protruding wall and as such are assigned to another level in the hierarchy of worship. It appears as if they have just arrived at the stable: they are still standing but their gestures suggest that they are about to kneel in prayer. The gestures and expressions of the two in the foreground betray their awareness of the solemnity of this moment, whereas only the head of the third shepherd is visible. He has stretched it out inquisitively to catch a glimpse of God¿s son. A wooden post at the left edge of the painting that supports the sloped roof projecting into the depth of the painting suggests the architectural setting where the event unfolds. To the left the stable is open and the scene of the annunciation is visible on a hill in the background. This scene precedes the central one; the shepherds can be clearly identified among the herd of sheep by their attire. The gloriole of angels illuminates the night sky. Two of the shepherds are already witnesses to the miraculous event, a third approaches. His red head attire identifies him as the curious shepherd ¿ here already a latecomer.
[Görres, in Bonnet, Kopp-Schmitt, Görres 2010, 162]