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)
8 And in that region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; 11 for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14“Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it they made known the saying which had been told them concerning this child; 18 and all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary kept all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.