A newborn child can only flourish in a loving relationship. And it gives a whole new life to those that care for it. Therefore, Georges de La Tour shows the newborn Jesus Christ in intimate connection with his mother, and accompanied by a second woman, perhaps a midwife. Everything that matters is here.
Everything else is faded out in darkness: there is no Joseph, no stable, animals, shepherds, or kings. Only these three persons are to be seen in their intense connection. This intimacy is stressed by a special choreography of light. There is just one source of light, that makes the three visible, but itself can barely be seen. The second woman holds it with one hand and protects (and covers) it with the other one.
So one may ask, who actually illuminates whom? Does the candle shed light on the child or is it the child who gives light to the women? This is more than an aesthetic trick. Rather, a symbolic truth is revealed here: the light of faith is fulfilled in a reciprocal illumination. It is as though the child illuminates the two women, whose affection gives him light in return. Here is a spiritual occurrence which—though a quiet moment of peace and love, outwardly silent—is yet at the same time inwardly charged with the most powerful of dynamics.
This mystical moment carries with it also an ethical motif: it underlines the importance of affection, attention, concentration, purity, and silence. In the light of this painting, Ephesians 5 can be read differently: not as a rigorous catalogue of ethical demands, but as a sermon on the fundamental and complex Christian symbol of light, and on the consequences it may have for one’s own life.
MacGregor, Neil, with Erika Langmuir. 2000. Seeing Salvation: Images of Christ in Art (London: BBC)