The Nativity is a devotional mid-1450s oil-on-wood panel painting by the Early Netherlandish painter Petrus Christus. It shows a nativity scene with grisaille archways and trompe-l'oeil sculptured reliefs. Christus was influenced by the first generation of Netherlandish artists, especially Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, and the panel is characteristic of the simplicity and naturalism of art of that period. Placing archways as a framing device is a typical van der Weyden device, and here likely borrowed from that artist's Altar of Saint John and Miraflores Altarpiece. Yet Christus adapts these painterly motifs to a uniquely mid-15th century sensibility, and the unusually large panel – perhaps painted as a central altarpiece panel for a triptych – is nuanced and visually complex. It shows his usual harmonious composition and employment of one-point-perspective, especially evident in the geometric forms of the shed's roof, and his bold use of color. It is one of Christus's most important works. Max Friedländer definitely attributed the panel to Christus in 1930, concluding that "in scope and importance, [it] is superior to all other known creations of this master.
The overall atmosphere is one of simplicity, serenity and understated sophistication. It is reflective of the 14th-century Devotio Moderna movement, and contains complex Christian symbolism, subtly juxtaposing Old and New Testament iconography. The sculpted figures in the archway depict biblical scenes of sin and punishment, signaling the advent of Christ's sacrifice, with an over-reaching message of the "Fall and Redemption of humankind". Inside the archway, surrounded by four angels, is the Holy Family; beyond, a landscape extends into the far background.
Art historians have suggested completion dates ranging from the early 1440s to the early 1460s, with c. 1455 seen as probable. The panel was acquired by Andrew Mellon in the 1930s, and was one of several hundreds from his personal collection donated to the National Gallery of Art in Washington. It has suffered damage and was restored in the early 1990s for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The panel measures 127.6 cm × 94.9 cm (50.2 in × 37.4 in), unusually large for a 15th-century Early Netherlandish single-panel painting. It covers four oak boards. Although there is no evidence of missing wing panels, its size suggests it was a central altarpiece of a large triptych. Art historian Joel Upton writes that with its size, style, tone and composition, Christus painted "an Andachtsbild, given monumental, ciboriumlike dimensions". The distinction between the figures and the space around them is characteristic of Christus, as is its one-point perspective. The background landscape is typically serene, as are what Upton describes as the "charming, almost doll-like figures who make up the cast of characters.