It has been suggested that this picture, the only surviving work signed by Botticelli, was painted for his own private devotions, or for someone close to him.
It is certainly unconventional, and does not simply represent the traditional events of the birth of Jesus and the adoration of the shepherds and the magi or Wise Men. Rather it is a vision of these events inspired by the prophecies in the Revelation of St John. Botticelli has underlined the non-realism of the picture by including Latin and Greek texts, and by adopting the conventions of medieval art, such as discrepancies in scale, for symbolic ends. The Virgin, adoring a gigantic infant Jesus, is so large that were She to stand She could not fit under the thatch roof of the stable. They are, of course, the holiest and the most important persons in the painting.
The angels carry olive branches, which two of them have presented to the men they embrace in the foreground. These men, as well as the presumed shepherds in their short hooded garments on the right and the long-gowned magi on the left, are all crowned with olive, an emblem of peace. The scrolls wound about the branches in the foreground, combined with some of those held by the angels dancing in the sky, read: 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men' (Luke 2:14). As angels and men move ever closer, from right to left, to embrace, little devils scatter into holes in the ground. The scrolls held by the angels pointing to the crib once read: `Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world' the words of John the Baptist presenting Christ (John 1:29). Above the stable roof the sky has opened to reveal the golden light of paradise. Golden crowns hang down from the dancing angels' olive branches. Most of their scrolls celebrate Maria: 'Mother of God', 'Bride of God', 'Sole Queen of the World'.
At a time when Florentine painters were recreating nature with their brush, Botticelli freely acknowledged the artificiality of art. In the pagan Venus and Mars he turned his back on naturalism in order to express ideal beauty. In the 'Mystic Nativity' he went further, beyond the old-fashioned to the archaic, to express spiritual truths - rather like the Victorians who were to rediscover him in the nineteenth century, and who associated the Gothic style with an 'Age of Faith'.
The puzzling Greek inscription at the top of the picture has been translated: