Three little angels kneel with Mary and Joseph in worship of the newborn Child. The ox and the ass stand behind them. Other angels in the distance announce the birth of Christ to a group of shepherds. The ruin behind Joseph symbolises the defeat of paganism by the coming of the Saviour. The artist has made the symbolism even plainer by including a relief in the classical ruin - a recumbent female nude, possibly Venus, and several playful little naked figures. These represent the pagan world and 'impure', earthly love, as opposed to the divine love in which Christ was conceived.
Marten de Vos spent some time in Italy, where he familiarised himself with the new art of the Renaissance. This is apparent in details like the lively poses, the realistic approach to the anatomy and the references to classical antiquity. The divided upper zone, one half containing an architectural setting and the other a deep landscape, was also typical of 16th-century Venetian art.
A reading from the Gospel of St. Luke (Luke 2:6-14)
2:6. And it came to pass that when they were there, her days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
Factum est autem cum essent ibi impleti sunt dies ut pareret
2:7. And she brought forth her first born son and wrapped him up in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger: because there was no room for them in the inn.
Et peperit filium suum primogenitum et pannis eum involvit et reclinavit eum in praesepio quia non erat eis locus in diversorio
2:8. And there were in the same country shepherds watching and keeping the night watches over their flock.
Et pastores erant in regione eadem vigilantes et custodientes vigilias noctis supra gregem suum
2:9. And behold an angel of the Lord stood by them and the brightness of God shone round about them: and they feared with a great fear.
Et ecce angelus Domini stetit iuxta illos et claritas Dei circumfulsit illos et timuerunt timore magno
2:10. And the angel said to them: Fear not; for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy that shall be to all the people:
Et dixit illis angelus nolite timere ecce enim evangelizo vobis gaudium magnum quod erit omni populo
2:11. For, this day is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.
Quia natus est vobis hodie salvator qui est Christus Dominus in civitate David
2:12. And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.
Et hoc vobis signum invenietis infantem pannis involutum et positum in praesepio
2:13. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying:
Et subito facta est cum angelo multitudo militiae caelestis laudantium Deum et dicentium
2:14. Glory to God in the highest:and on earth peace to men of good will. Gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis