One shepherd is happy to see the child and pious, the second one is just curious while the third one has some sort of suspicion or confusion regarding the whole incident (Van Der Goes). In this way, and also reflected in the dressing the shepherds in very shepherd-like clothes, the painter has tried to make his painting as close to reality as possible (Van Der Goes). The appearances of these three shepherds are summarized by Kleiner as “lined faces, work-worn hands and uncouth dress and (a) manner (that) seem immediately familiar” (408). The sheaf of wheat on the floor is another nuance added to the painting to have a realistic effect. The presence of the two cows in the picture has also reinforced the realistic tradition of this picture. Altogether, the picture can said to be anchored in realism and drawing resources also from emotionalism and symbolism to enrich that realism or to add a new divine dimension to that. The minute detailing in the depiction of drapery, the flowers, and the animals are another dimension of the realism inherent to this painting.
The expressions of the people present in the scene, including that of the Virgin, attribute a high degree of emotionalism to the painting. Mary’s face is full of sorrow as if she is aware of the agonies that future has in store for this child (Van Der Goes). She is looking at the child with great pity. And the angels also have a similar kind of expression (Van Der Goes). The emaciated appearance of the child adds to the pathos of the scene. Even one cow in the cowshed is looking at the child with great sadness. Thus there is the presence of a divine foresight in the scene; a premonition of kind (Kleiner, 408). On the contrary, the shepherds are showing more mundane emotions and are balancing the sadness of the scene with a matter of fact presence (Van Der Goes). Also it can be seen that in this painting, emotionalism is used in a complementary manner to add on to realism. This is a technique which is counted as very effective, as emotions always add intensity to the realness of the situation. Many symbolic elements are also present in this painting. The blue colored dress that Mary is wearing is suggestive of a great expanse of sadness that surrounds the story of Jesus. Blue can also be seen as a color of compassion and repentance. It is the color of eternal peace that can only be achieved through salvation. In this way, Mary of this painting has personified the essence of the message of Jesus Christ. Here it can be seen that emotionalism and symbolism have a mutually supplementing relationship. Depiction of the child lying on the ground rather than in a crib, with a golden aureole surrounding him, is symbolic of two things- his ability to walk among the downtrodden, and his divinity (Van Der Goes). The sheaf of wheat on the floor has been interpreted by art critics as symbolic of Bethlehem (Kleiner, 408). This is so because, the meaning of the word, Bethlehem is ‘house of bread’, in Hebrew (Kleiner, 408). From common knowledge, it can be assumed that the orange lilies offered to the child are symbolic of passion and the white irises of purity. In religious terms, the purple irises as well as the columbine stalks have been considered as representative of the seven sorrows of the virgin (Kleiner, 408). The fifteen angels seen together inside this painting along with the two supporting paintings of Portinari altarpiece, have been conside