This wonderful picture is one of the most singular and beautiful works of that great master. Adopting an idea till then unknown to painters, he has created a new principle of light and shade; and in the limited space of nine feet by six, has expanded a breadth and depth of perspective which defies description. The subject he has chosen, is the adoration of the shepherds, who, after hearing the glad tidings of joy and salvation, proclaimed by the heavenly host, hasten to hail the new-born King and Saviour. On so unpromising a subject as the birth of a child, in so mean a place as a stable, the painter has, however, thrown the air of divinity itself. The principal light emanates from the body of the infant, and illuminates the surrounding objects; but a secondary light is borrowed from a group of angels above, which, while it aids the general effect, is yet itself irradiated by the glory breaking from the child, and allegorizing the expression of scripture, that Christ is the true light of the world. Nor is the art, with which the figures are represented less admirable than the management of the light. The face of the child is skillfully hidden, by its oblique position, from the conviction that the features of a new-born infant are ill-adapted to please the eye; but that of the Virgin is warmly irradiated, and yet so disposed, that in bending with maternal fondness over her offspring, it exhibits exquisite beauty, without the harshness of deep shadows. The light strikes boldly on the lower part of her face, and is lost in a fainter glow on the eyes, while the forehead is thrown into shade. The figures of Joseph and the shepherds are traced with the same skillful pencil; and the glow which illuminates the piece is heightened to the imagination, by the attitude of a shepherdess, bringing an offering of doves, who shades her eyes with her hand, as if unable to sustain the brightness of incarnate divinity. The glimmering of the rising dawn, which shews the figures in the background, contributes to augment the splendor of the principal glory. "The beauty, grace, and finish of the piece," says Mengs, "are admirable, and every part is executed in a peculiar and appropriate style."

Opie, in his lectures, speaking of this work, justly observes, "In the Nótte, where the light diffused over the piece emanates from the child, he has embodied a thought at once beautiful, picturesque, and sublime; an idea which has been seized upon with such avidity, and produced so many imitations that no one is accused of plagiarism. The real author is forgotten, and the public accustomed to consider this incident as naturally a part of the subject, have long ceased to inquire, when, or by whom, it was invented."

The history of this picture is curious, though involved in much obscurity. It is generally stated that while Correggio was engaged upon the grand cupola at Parma, he generally passed the colder season, when he could not work in fresco, in his native place. Passing through Reggio in one of his journeys, he received a commission from Alberto Pratonero for an altar-piece of the Nativity, which produced one of his finest pictures, now called La Nótte. The indefatigable Tiraboschi discovered the original contract for the work, which is dated October 14th, 1522, and fixes the price at two hundred and eight livre di moneta Vecchia, or forty-seven and a half gold ducats (about $104). It was painted for the Pratoneri chapel in the church of S. Prospero at Reggio, but it was not fixed in its destined place till 1530. It is said that it was removed surreptitiously by order of Francesco I., the reigning Duke of Modena, who substituted a copy. The same story, however, is related of Correggio's Ancona, painted for the church of the Conventuals at Correggio. (See vol. ii., page 257, of this work.) At all events, the elector of Saxony subsequently purchased this gem, with other valuable pictures, from the Ducal Gallery at Mantua, and it now forms one of the principal ornaments of the Dresden Gallery.