This painting and its pendant, The Nativity, were commissioned in 1887 to decorate the north and south walls of the chancel of the Church of St. John in Torquay, England.
The King and the Shepherd combines separate events in the story of the birth of Christ: the voyages of the magi and the shepherds to Bethlehem. The artist's introduction of angels leading each traveler by the hand is unusual, as is the single figure who represents each group. The pairings visually suggest the equality, in the face of divinity, between the wealthy king and the humble peasant. In the context of the enormous social inequalities rife in Victorian England, this message smacked of social and political radicalism. The Latin inscription is from the New Testament description of the journey of the shepherds: Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us (Luke 2:15).
Edward Coley Burne-Jones was one of the few prominent artists of the late 19th century to avoid realism in subject matter and/or style. As he wrote, "I mean by a picture, a beautiful, romantic dream of something that never was, never will be, in a light better than any light that ever shone, in a land no one can define or remember—only desire."