The Adoration of the Shepherds
People that Walked in Darkness
Commentary by Neil MacGregor
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. To capture the miracle, the artist, for the first time that we know in Italian panel painting, tries to render a night scene. The hillside on the left is dark, but on the right, the glory of the Lord—as bright as the medium of matte egg tempera can show it—shines round about the shepherds and divides the world from henceforth into those who know the good news and those who do not.
Few paintings make so clear how appropriate, and how shocking, it was that the first people to be told that Jesus was the Messiah were shepherds. Like David, they are tending their sheep on the hillside when the Lord’s messenger summons them. Because of their work outdoors, close to animals, shepherds often failed to observe the rules of ritual Jewish purity and could rarely participate fully in the life of the Temple. Yet when they reach Bethlehem, they will be the first to see their salvation.
They are, however, allowed to see it only from a distance. The artist makes their insider/outsider status very clear. The child is cradled like a king: his bed-cloth is scarlet. This is royal David’s city. The shepherds, dressed in dull coarse cloth, are not allowed as close even as the animals: set behind a low wall of rock, they are respectful spectators—emphatically not participants.
This is the first scene in a huge narrative altarpiece. The next, the Adoration of the Magi, is set in the same landscape. But here the artist removed the rock-wall that excluded the shepherds: the kings may not only draw close to the Christ-Child, they touch him. And in the next episode in Luke’s Gospel, set inside the Temple, Simeon, righteous and devout according to the Law, sees his salvation, and takes the Saviour in his arms.
Hornik, Heidi and Mikeal C. Parsons. 2003. Illuminating Luke: The Infancy Narrative in Italian Renaissance Painting (Harrisberg, PA: Trinity Press)
Trexler, Richard C. 1997. The Journey of the Magi (Princeton: Princeton University Press)
A World Turned Upside Down
Commentary by Neil MacGregor
The hierarchy of the world has been turned upside down. The ox and ass look knowingly down on the humans below them, who in turn look down on God incarnate. As the angel brings the good news to all people, the entire world is created anew, from top to bottom in the order of its first creation. First, a new day dawns, separating light and dark. Next, heaven and earth, land and water, are set apart. Then, animals and humans are given new abundant life. And in this new creation, in the humblest position of all, beneath even the shepherd’s dog, lies the Saviour.
Christ’s place in time, his part in the long scheme of salvation, is made clear. The baby’s pose is clearly designed to recall Moses floating in his basket (Exodus 2:3). Jesus is to be the second Moses, saving his people and bringing the new law. But he is more. The shepherds have come to the city of David and they greet their saviour as the second David.
This new David is to be a shepherd for more than the Jews—his sheep will be not only of this fold. So the figure carrying a lamb on his shoulders echoes a well known Gentile image, the Graeco-Roman sculpture of the god Mercury as the Good Shepherd. This baby will be the good shepherd of John 10, who calls all his sheep, Gentiles and Jews, by their name—and who will lay down his life for them.
We see how that life will be given. On the right stands the broken column of Christ’s future scourging: it is emblematic of the Roman Empire, whose Emperor’s decree caused Christ to be born in Bethlehem, and under whose law he will die. In defiance of Luke’s text, the baby is shown not swaddled, but naked, exposed, and vulnerable. At his feet the rough-hewn branches of his crib foretell three crosses.
In the Depth Be Praise
Commentary by Neil MacGregor
Oil paint, with its extraordinary power to capture sheen and shadow, to make darkness visible, allows Philippe de Champaigne to reveal a key aspect of this child’s nature. As five shepherds draw near to the manger, set near the mouth of a cave, the flame of their torch pales. They, and the entire earthly scene, are illuminated by the swaddled child who is to be the light of the world, shining in the velvety darkness which will not overwhelm it. He is surrounded by the brilliant blue robe of his mother, painted with the most expensive of pigments, ground lapis lazuli: and to show that she is uniquely favoured among women, the colour reappears in the drapery of the heavenly host, who have accompanied the shepherds to Bethlehem, and are still singing.
Significantly their song, written on the fluttering banderole, continues beyond the words reported by Luke: clearly legible, the letters that climb into the cloud at the top right spell LAUDA (MUS TE). ‘We praise you’. The angels have moved from the gospel into the Gloria of the Latin mass. Like all who look at this painting, the angels watch both the birth of Christ centuries ago, and the perpetually present mystery of his sacrifice in the liturgy of the church.
On the ground, his white fleece painted with tender precision, his feet bound for the slaughter, a lamb looks silently out at us. He is the gift of the worshipping shepherds, pointing to the sublime paradox that this child will be at once the Good Shepherd and the Lamb that is slain.
When the priest celebrating Mass in front of this altarpiece held up the host, the congregation looking at it would, behind it and beside it, behold the Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world.
Jacopo di Cione and workshop :
The Nativity with the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Shepherds, Upper Tier Panel of The San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece, 1370–71 , Egg tempera on panel
Juan Bautista Maino :
Adoration of the Shepherds, 1615–20 , Oil on canvas
Philippe de Champaigne :
The Adoration of the Shepherds, c.1645 , Oil on canvas
Exalting the Humble and Meek
Commentary by Neil MacGregor
For everyone beyond Jesus’s family, Jew or Gentile, this is where the story begins. The shepherds, poor, unlearned, and unregarded, are the first to be told that Jesus is the Messiah, and that this joyous news is not for the Jews alone, but for all people. And (pleasingly for the Visual Commentary on Scripture) the shepherds’ first response is ocular: they decide to go to Bethlehem to see. No texts, no disputation: just looking.
When artists join the shepherds at the manger, their task is to let people understand—by looking—that this is a turning point in the divine scheme of salvation. They can assume that everybody already knows the story—and how it ends. So the artists chosen here aim, like the Evangelist, to show who this child really is.
He is the second David, the great shepherd/ruler of Ezekiel 34; so the first to acknowledge Jesus are his fellow shepherds. They come in working clothes (Jesus too will describe himself as a working shepherd), but with courtly gestures of reverence and homage they salute him as their king. Luke gives no indication of how many shepherds there were—the artist must decide, depending on how much space he has—and makes no mention of their bringing anything. Some offer gifts—eggs or a lamb—and like the gifts of the Magi, these point to the future. Much more important is what, in all three paintings, they do not bring. They leave their flocks. It is something that would surely have disconcerted any pre-urban viewer. These first followers, like all who come after, will have to set their daily tasks to one side.
Where Luke deploys words with resonant echoes of history and prophecy, the artists use images that collapse time, connecting this moment to passages of Scripture past and future—and to the worship of the church. They draw parallels with the creation in Genesis, and Moses’s role as liberator and Law-giver. The ox and the ass recall Isaiah’s reproach (Isaiah 1:3) to the blind ingratitude of Israel. The Good Shepherd bringing abundant life (John 10), the Lamb of God whom the Baptist points out to the disciples (John 1:29), the Lamb that was slain (Revelation 5:6)—all find their place here, in paintings that are at once illustration and exegesis. Where T.S. Eliot’s Magi wonder whether they witnessed a birth or a death (‘Journey of the Magi’ 1927), Juan Bautista Maino and Philippe de Champaigne leave us in no doubt that we see both.
Some insights depend on what the materials allow the artist to do. In fourteenth-century Florence, Jacopo di Cione could bind his pigments only in the medium of egg tempera, which can deliver bright colours, but struggles to render shining brightness. Unlike later painters like Champaigne, he cannot convincingly show Christ as the light of the world. Yet he finds a visual way of linking—almost equating—the birth of Christ to the first verses of Genesis: for the first time in European painting since the Romans, he makes a landscape where we see the light being divided from the darkness.
All three altarpieces were designed to be looked at repeatedly during the celebration of Mass, and to reveal their deepest meanings as Christ’s sacrifice was ritually re-enacted beneath them. The references and resonances identified here would be echoed by readings, sermons, and the words and actions of the liturgy—so brilliantly incorporated by Champaigne.
Visual commentaries like the altarpieces selected here have one serious limitation. They could be made only because they were paid for by a patron, who usually determined the subject and frequently influenced its interpretation. It is striking that there are many more Adorations of the Magi than Adorations of the Shepherds (needless to say there are hardly any images of the mighty being put down from their seats). The feast day of the Three Kings is a great holy day; they were given names; their bones in Cologne drew throngs of pilgrims; Florentine trading families had a particular veneration for them. None of this happened to the shepherds. Although Christ charged his apostles, like shepherds, to feed his sheep, few people of power wanted to identify with those outsiders who first heard the good news.
The painted record of the church, with all the insights that it offers, is a record largely shaped by the rich.