The relief depicts the Birth of Christ. The Virgin Mary is kneeling in the foreground in front of the Christ Child who is lying on a dais framed within a mandorla. An angel is praying at his feet. Joseph is standing behind Mary, his face lowered towards the two midwives, Zebel and Salome, who he had fetched as a precaution to attend the birth, according to the Legenda Aurea. The ox and the donkey, both looking down at the Christ Child, are not mentioned in the Gospels but have been permanent features in depictions of the Nativity, based on Isaiah’s prophecy, since the early days of Christianity. At the top, the scene is rounded off by a baldachin-like architectural feature, flanked by another angel.
This depiction of the Birth of Christ is in keeping with the theological and iconographical traditions of the time. During her trip to the Holy Land in 1372, Bridget of Sweden had a vision in which she saw the Virgin taking off her shoes, placing her cloak next to her and removing the veil from her head, letting her golden hair fall onto her shoulders. After the birth she knelt down in front of the new-born child that was lying naked on the ground; he emited a light that was ‘brighter than the sun’. The Son of God was not lying in swaddling clothes in a bed nor was he in a crib surrounded by straw.
Alabaster as a material used for carving was already being cut from seams found in England in the 12th century and experienced its heyday between 1350 and 1530. A soft material, it was easy to carve; its creamy-coloured, translucent surface being reminiscent of shimmering skin. On top of this, alabaster is mentioned in the Old Testament and in works from antiquity on carved and engraved works of art and, as such, was considered a noble material. It was, therefore, on a par with elegant marble which was not found in Great Britain and had to be imported at great expense and effort from the Continent. The discovery of alabaster deposits in England coincided with the growing need for religious works of art for private prayer. Such sites, predominantly in and around Nottingham, were worked by ‘alabaster men’. More than 2400 alabaster panels with carved reliefs are known today.