Closely related to van der Goes' lost painting of the subject, known through a number of close copies and adaptions including one in the Musée de Picardie, Amiens, attributed by Friedländer to the Master of the Embroidered Foliage (M. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, New York, 1969, IV, suppl. 130, pl. 111). Another version, by an anonymous artist of the early 16th Century, is in the Narodowe Museum, Warsaw (J. Bialostocki, Malarstwo Niderlandzkie W Zbiorach Polskich 1450-1550, Warsaw, 1960, no.63).
The handling of the present drawing shows clear painterly intent. This is particularly apparent in the subtle shifts of tone in the ink across the drawing. The flesh of the figure of Christ is drawn in a warm brown that is contrasted with the cool blue-grey of the perizonium and the sleeve of Saint John's robe which thows his face into relief. The figures of Saint John and of the Virgin are finely drawn in a darker grey which itself contrasts with the more loosely modelled subsidiary figures behind. This generates a progression from the highly wrought warm tones of the foreground in the lower part of the sheet up through increasingly cool and less defined passages to the background.
Analysis of van der Goes' career is hindered by the existence of only one securely documented work, the Portinari Nativity of circa 1473-75 made for Tommaso Portinari, the Medici agent in Bruges, and now in the Uffizi (M. Friedländer, op. cit., no. 10). Van der Goes had been a free Master in Ghent since 1467, and was elected deacon of the Painter's Guild in 1474 and 1475. In the autumn of that year he became a lay brother of the Priory at Rouge-Cloître, although he continued to fulfil commissions until his death.
In common with other 15th Century Flemish Masters, drawings associated with van der Goes are excessively rare. The only sheet which even approaches undisputed acceptance is a drawing principally made with the point of the brush showing Jacob and Rachel at Christ Church, Oxford (J. Byam Shaw, Drawings by Old Masters at Christ Church, Oxford, Oxford, 1976, no. 1309, pl. 772). Of interest for comparison with the present drawing is the Christ on the Cross in pen and brush and brown ink at Windsor Castle, which Professor Koreny is inclined to accept (F. Koreny, Early Netherlandish drawings from Jan van Eyck to Hieronymous Bosch, exhib. cat., Antwerp, Rubenshuis, 2002, no. 31).