El Greco
The Adoration of the Shepherds

Spain, circa 1610
Oil on canvas
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

As with so many Nativities after the 14th century, the artist uses light to express the divinity of the child. But here the light bursts brilliantly from the baby, sending the visitors into amazement and ecstasy.

It is common for Nativities to allude to the Eucharist, but in this case the allusions do so by referring to the Passion and to Christ's sacrificial death on the cross. Thus, the artist repeats the bright white color of the child in the trussed lamb in the lower left, identifying the child thereby as the sacrificial lamb who "takes away the sins of the world."

Furthermore, the swaddling cloth on which the baby lies may also be a reference to the cloth of Veronica, an element in the traditional Passion narrative. Notice how Mary seems to be holding the swaddling cloth up as if for inspection, holding the corners with just two fingers of each hand (see detail). This is typical of the way the cloth is held up to the viewer in Veronica images: see the Veronica page, especially images by the Master of St. Veronica, Hans Memling, and El Greco himself.

More of the Nativity

Photographed at the Metropolitan by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.