The Nativity is among the rarer subjects in Lucas Cranach’s oeuvre although as this small panel demonstrates, the artist delighted in capturing its drama and emotional complexity. Here, Christ’s birth has been transplanted from Bethlehem to a lush, Northern landscape with snow-kissed hills and trees. By changing the setting in this way, Cranach sought to encourage his audience to form a more personal connection with the biblical story. The artist employs two distinct light sources for this composition: a lamp at lower center - a highly original compositional device for Cranach - casts a circle of golden beams, while beyond the manger’s ruined wall a silvery moon bathes the entire scene in cool, wintery light. A heavenly host of luminescent angels cascades from the sky, each displaying his own distinctive response to the joyous event taking place below. Plump and curly-haired, they float through the night on shimmering wings of silver, garnet and gold. The Virgin, depicted as a young mother with pearlescent skin and an abundance of blonde locks, kneels in prayer before her newborn son while an angel hovering behind her echoes her devotional pose. In lieu of a cradle, the infant Christ rests inside a hay-filled stone trough that foreshadows his future sacrifice by evoking imagery of the Entombment and the Lamentation. A white cloth is stretched beneath his head, transforming the trough into a Christian altar, and thus conflating the newborn Christ with the Holy Eucharist. Peering over the crumbling snow-dusted wall at right, the three shepherds witness the event, their humble gestures adding another layer of poignancy to the scene. Through the opening in the ruins at left, another shepherd appears kneeling on the hillside with his dog and flock, a reference to the Annunciation to the Shepherds. The delicate handling of this minute vignette and of the rich landscape, which seems almost to possess a spiritual life of its own, are hallmarks of the Danube School, of which Cranach was a leading representative.
Dieter Koepplin has confirmed the attribution to the studio of Lucas Cranach (written communication, 12 December 2014) on the basis of photographs, citing the painting’s high quality and originality ('hoher Qualität und Originalität’; written communication, 19 July 2014). Other treatments of the Nativity by Lucas Cranach include the painting now in the Angermuseum, Erfurt, which Friedländer and Rosenberg date to after 1537 (op. cit., 1978, no. 361), in which the Virgin has a narrower and more angular face, as well as three other nighttime scenes, in which the Virgin is closer in type to the present work. These are the panels in the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen, Dresden, datable to c. 1515-20; formerly with L. Hirsch, London, datable to c. 1518-20; and the horizontally-oriented panel formerly in the Dr. H. Weber collection, Halle, of circa 1520, which Friedländer notes is closest to the present work (ibid., nos. 101-103).