This image of the nativity omits Wise Men, shepherds, angels, and even most animals, focusing instead on a quiet moment with the Holy Family. Only the donkey that Mary traditionally rode is shown in the stable, both referencing the difficult travel that led to Christ’s birth in a stable in Bethlehem and foreshadowing the Flight into Egypt to save His life.
The humble circumstances of Christ’s birth are emphasized in the painting. The artist shows us close detail of the wood stall and the hay that Mary lies on. The scene is illuminated by a strong beam of light coming from above, casting light on Joseph’s arm that will be responsible for protecting baby Jesus from King Herod—a theme echoed by the presence of the donkey—and Mary’s exhausted body. Joseph is kneeling, his arm rested on his knee, his eyes downcast towards baby Jesus, in an attitude of prayer.
The painting includes many traditional symbols relating to Mary and Jesus. A vase, washbasin, or other vessel for water often represents Mary, as she was the vessel who bore the Christ child. A cloth or towel traditionally represents her purity and cleanliness. The only splash of color in this painting is the blue towel draped over the washbasin. In medieval art, blue often represented Mary because it was made from ground lapis lazuli, which was more costly than gold, so artists honored her by using that color. Mary’s white gown represents her purity.
The title of the painting references two scriptures. In one famous verse set to music in Handel’s Messiah, an oratorio about the life of Christ, John the Baptist says, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.”1 In the Book of Mormon, the prophet Nephi sees Mary and the Christ child in a vision. An angel says to Nephi, “Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father!”2 In this painting, Joseph and Mary behold not only their newborn babe, but the Lamb of God.
Further reading: “Good Tidings of Great Joy: the Birth of Jesus Christ”