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)
3 But fornication and all impurity or covetousness must not even be named among you, as is fitting among saints. 4Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving. 5Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure man, or one who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. 6Let no one deceive you with empty words, for it is because of these things that the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience. 7Therefore do not associate with them, 8for once you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord; walk as children of light 9(for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), 10and try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. 11Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. 12For it is a shame even to speak of the things that they do in secret; 13but when anything is exposed by the light it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. 14Therefore it is said,
“Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead,
and Christ shall give you light.”
15 Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, 16making the most of the time, because the days are evil. 17Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. 18And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, 19addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with all your heart, 20always and for everything giving thanks in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God the Father.