Peter Paul Rubens created this drawing to be engraved for a new edition of the Brevarium Romanum, the Catholic prayer book or breviary. Among Rubens's most richly worked drawings for the Brevarium, this scene is notable for its nocturnal illumination. To create the effect of evening, he bathed the entire page in tones of brown wash. He then used white bodycolor to suffuse the onlookers in the Christ Child's miraculous holy light, a concept ultimately derived from Correggio's art.
In this sheet, Rubens's drawing betrays an artist who thinks primarily as a painter, softening outlines and building up shapes that then take on life and color. Even in this very finished drawing, he characteristically sacrificed detail to gain a sense of movement and energy.
For twenty-five years, Rubens supplied his boyhood friend Balthasar Moretus, head of Antwerp's Plantin Press, with illustrations for books ranging from the philosophy of Seneca to a treatise on optics. Moretus informed him well in advance about the illustrations required; during this time, Rubens jotted down many ideas that he worked into designs for engravings, as in this drawing.