This painting and its pendant, The King and the Shepherd, were commissioned in 1887 for the Church of St. John in Torquay, England. The style of the painting suited the gothic revival interior, but it also exemplified the ideals of British Pre-Raphaelite art, which sought inspiration in the purity and spirituality of early Renaissance painting. The composition and gilded background were inspired by Italian art of the 14th century.
Called The Nativity, its true subject is the redemption of mankind through cycles of birth, death, and rebirth exemplified by the life of Christ. The somber mood of the scene results not only from muted coloring and static figures, but also from many symbols of death: the crown of thorns, chalice, and urn; the shroudlike garments; and the draping of the manger reminiscent of a bier. The Latin inscription refers to the Resurrection: Because of the misery of the poor and the groaning of the needy, now will I arise, saith the Lord. As in the unusual iconography of The King and the Shepherd, nearby, this inscription is a subtle allusion to the social miseries of Victorian Britain.