The Nativity is one of three small predella panels for Gentile’s monumental Adoration of the Magi painted in Renaissance Florence for the wealthy banker Palla Strozzi. While the main panel of the altarpiece is a brilliant, sumptuous and somewhat hectic depiction of the royal procession arriving to adore the child, the smaller predella panel below tells a far more intimate story.
Gentile selects the moment just after Jesus’ birth. This infant, who arrived in the world without struggle or pain, lies naked on the exposed ground but shows no signs of cold or distress. Instead, he returns his mother’s adoring gaze with a most engaging delight. Despite the fact that these two are no ordinary mortals under the most extraordinary of circumstances, it is a remarkably human moment as mother and child make each other’s acquaintance. Joseph sleeps nearby and the shepherds are only learning of the great event some miles away. The heavenly host has not yet arrived on the scene. Only a serving girl, awakened perhaps by the brilliant light emanating from Jesus, intrudes on their happiness.
This small panel shows us the power of this divine light, as all the stars and the moon (originally silver) in the sky pale besides the radiance of Jesus and the angel in the background. They turn the night into day with a radiant, joyful glow that bathes the landscape in warm light. For all its magnificence, the golden trappings of the main panel cannot compete with this simple, profound miracle.