The tondo, or circular painting, enjoyed remarkable popularity in Renaissance Florence and was a specialty of Piero di Cosimo. His surviving examples of the type accommodate rich narratives within their round formats, which signify eternity, divinity, and cosmic harmony. The National Gallery’s Nativity, among the largest of Piero’s roundels, was likely intended for devotional use in a private palace or in the more public setting of a local confraternity or guildhall. Mary kneels in adoration of the infant Christ, who rests on a blue mantle, his head supported by a pillow of wheat that evokes the Eucharist. Also present to venerate the incarnate Jesus are an angel and the young John the Baptist, who clutches a reed cross and regards the Christ child with touching solemnity.
Piero’s narrative vision encompasses details sublime and mundane, from the symbolic rose and bud, rocks, and dove beside Christ to the half-ruined stable in the background with its niche of kitchen utensils. Jesus’s father, Joseph, descends the building’s wooden stairs in the cautious manner of an aged man. He is attended by angels bearing flowering branches to celebrate the Child’s birth. In the distance at left, the three Magi traverse a serene landscape whose rolling contours perfectly complement the tondo’s shape.