This painting shows the traditional Christmas story: the infant Christ, lying in the manger, is watched over by Mary, Joseph and adoring angels, while an ox and donkey （Isaiah 1:3) peer out of the darkness behind. Through the crumbling back wall we see shepherds and their sheep up on the hills huddled around a fire, their dog beside them. They gaze up in awe at the shining angel in the sky above them.
The divine glow from the Christ Child is a pocket of light in the darkness, creating a sense of intimacy and awe which draws us into the scene. The idea of the night scene lit in this way was not Geertgen’s, but was based on two lost night-time Nativity scenes by Hugo van der Goes.