Closely observed details of nature carry symbolic meaning in this painting of the Virgin Mary worshiping the Christ Child. The carpet of plants, for example—with flowers like lilies, daisies, and lady's bedstraw—symbolizes Mary's purity. The cut tree stump, the sleeping child's pose, and the tomb-like rock formation allude to Christ's death, while the stream trickling from the barren rock suggests resurrection (life from death). Even the bird perched near the child and the tadpoles in the little pool are associated with Christ's resurrection: the bird symbolizes the soul and the tadpoles represent both new life and transformation ("fish" into frog).
The subject derives from the visions of the fourteenth-century mystic, Saint Bridget of Sweden. In her account of her visions, she describes "seeing" the Virgin Mary give painless birth to the Christ Child while kneeling on the ground, then immediately worshiping her son while Joseph sleeps nearby (he can be seen dozing in the left background of the painting). The prayer book before the Virgin in the painting is open to a passage from Paul's First Epistle to the Hebrews that was traditionally read on Christmas Day: "And Thou, Lord, in the beginning has laid the foundation of the earth." The emphasis, then, is on Christ's divinity.
A contemporary of fellow Florentines Leonardo da Vinci, Botticelli, and Michelangelo, Piero di Cosimo painted many of these tondo paintings (from Italian for "round"). The format probably developed from round, painted trays used to present gifts to new mothers. Used almost exclusively for the home, tondi were usually displayed in bedchambers and frequently showed the Virgin and Child as role models for pious domestic behavior.