This work comes from the front predella, the separate horizontal band of narrative scenes at the base of the great Maestà altarpiece that depicts Mary, the patron saint of Siena, in majesty with angels and saints. A contract of 1308 states that the huge altarpiece for the cathedral of Siena was to be painted entirely by Duccio di Buoninsegna; it is probable, however, that the artist took on assistants to help carry out the project.
In the Nativity, Duccio employed conventional Byzantine elements, such as the cave setting, the glowing colors, and the multi–scene composition. Mary is shown in the usual Byzantine manner — larger than the figures around her yet — her large size also underscores the importance the Virgin held for the Sienese. The bracketing side panels portray Old Testament prophets holding scrolls that foretell the birth of Christ.
Duccio's unique contribution to the Byzantine style is his use of elegantly flowing lines, most evident here in the drapery folds and mountain ridges. The soft, undulating brushstrokes downplay the austerity of the earlier style, as do the sensitive rendering of the Virgin's face and the individual characterizations of Isaiah and Ezekiel, expressing a true sense of human feeling.