Geertgen tot Sint Jans (meaning ‘little Gerard of Saint John’) was an Early Netherlandish painter who died at the young age of 28. Not much is known about him, yet he gave us one of the most beautiful interpretations of the birth of Jesus in his “Nativity at Night.” It has been called “one of the most engaging and convincing early treatments of the Nativity as a night scene”.
A brilliant light in the foreground comes from Jesus as he lay in the crib, illuminating his mother, Mary. As she bends forward with her hands in prayer, we see Joseph standing in the background. We see a second contrast between dark and light as the angel announces the birth of Jesus to the shepherds. The shepherd’s fire gives us a third and lesser light source.
In the 14th-century, St. Bridget of Sweden wrote of the idea of the infant illuminating the Nativity scene. She wrote that the light of the child was so bright ‘that the sun was not comparable to it’. A century later, Geertgen creates this idea by using extreme contrasts of light and dark to heighten the sense of the miraculous birth of Jesus.