The work was commissioned in 1609, and hung above the altar at the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, in Palermo, Sicily.
As the title depicts, the work depicts the Nativity of the Christ. The central theme is the Christ-child himself, who lies on a bed of straw. Caravaggio illustrates a gathering of many saints and shepherds, who have assembled to worship the newborn Christ-child. The setting is under the roof of the stable in Bethlehem.
The most striking feature of the painting is its subtlety. The side walls merge smoothly into brownish darkness, making it difficult for a casual observer to view St. Lawrence, one of the main characters, at first glance. Many observers would also mistake St. Francis, the other notable who feature in the assembly, for a shepherd.
"The Adoration" is rich in symbolism. Caravaggio depicts an ox, which appears behind St. Lawrence, and looks on at the infant Christ. At the top of the painting, Caravaggio depicts an angel, apparently descending from heaven. The angel carries a banner on his left hand, reading “Gloria.” The right hand of the angel points upwards, as if to reassure the Christ-child he is indeed the saviour.
Among the various figures featuring in the centre of the portrait, two stand out. One is the patron who represents the church, for whom Caravaggio executed the work. The other figure represents the Order to which the church belongs. There is no clear cut indication as to which figure represents Joseph, the foster father of the Christ.
The painting also has a whiff of realism. The Holy Virgin, seen looking at the child, is depicted as crouching on the ground, exhausted. She wears a cut dress which falls from her right shoulder. The choice of dress is unusual for the setting, and marks a noted aberration to the otherwise conformist setting.
The overriding theme of the painting is a pensive lore. Caravaggio depicts the idea of the advent of Christ not with the joy of Redemption but with an uncertain future.
Cut to modern times, "the Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence" is the subject of one of the most mysterious art robberies ever. The original painting, hung above the altar at the Oratorio di San Lorenzo, was stolen on October 18, 1969.
Owing to its large size, the thieves removed the painting from its frame, before carting it away. The local Sicilian Mafia are the prime suspects, though the identity of the thieves and the whereabouts of the painting remain a mystery to this day. The work is on the FBI’s list of top 10 art crimes.
"The Nativity", if it still survives and is sold, has an estimated value of $20 million. The painting measures 268 cm x 197 cm, or about six square metres of area.