Adoration of the Shepherds by Juan Bautista Maino

Juan Bautista Maino

Adoration of the Shepherds, 1615–20, Oil on canvas, 160 x 119.4 cm, Meadows Museum, SMU, Dallas, MM.94.01, Michael Bodycomb, Courtesy of the Meadows Museum meadowsmuseumdallas.org

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A World Turned Upside Down

Individual Commentary
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.