Mary nurses the infant Christ, and is accompanied by her relative Elizabeth and her son, John the Baptist. The figure of Joseph was originally included but painted over. The human side of these religious figures has been emphasised. There is a sense of motherly love in the glances and gestures of the women, while John the Baptist plays with Christ’s foot. The lamb may represent Christ’s future sacrifice.
The two children may have been modelled on Rubens’s own sons by his second wife, Helena Fourment, whom he married in 1630. This work was enormously popular. Many copies and engravings were made, bringing it to a wide audience. Rubens was a leading painter in 17th-century Europe, working for both Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain.