Scala/Art Resource, NY

“And she brought forth her firstborn son, and laid him in a manger.” So wrote Luke in his remarkable birth story, set here in a fanciful Italianate landscape. Commissioned to hang in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Florence, “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1485) by Domenico Ghirlandaio includes the manger where Mary and Joseph were forced to spend the night because there was “no room at the inn” (Luke 2:7). On a distant hill, an angel announces the miraculous birth to the shepherds “keeping watch over their flock by night” (Luke 2:8–14). In the foreground, these shepherds, their skin tanned by years in the fields, marvel at the newborn child (2:16–18) while the gray-haired Joseph casts his eyes toward heaven. In Ghirlandaio’s rendition, Roman ruins with a straw roof serve as the makeshift manger; behind the babe lies a gaping sarcophagus—a reminder of his impending death and resurrection.

According to Luke, the birth took place suddenly when Joseph and Mary were traveling from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem for an imperial census. But there’s a glitch in Luke’s account: The only comparable historical census took place in 6 A.D., several years after Jesus’ birth.