As Christmas is approaching, I thought I’d post a few pieces of Christmassy art over the next few days. And today I’m starting with two paintings, one painted in the first half of the 17th Century, towards the end of the Renaissance. I don’t claim to be an expert, or even to know much at all about this kind of painting, but I love the way these guys captured what was going on as Jesus was born.
The first painting is The Adoration of the Shepherds by Caravaggio, painted in 1609 (the year before he died).
The painting is a simple nativity scene, with straw on ground and an ox and donkey in the background. Mary lies holding her baby, and Joseph introduces the shepherds to his family. Compared to other portrayals of Mary from around the same time, she looks sort of dishevelled and tired (understandable if she’d just given birth in a stable!) – her shawl has slid from her shoulders, and she leans wearily against the manger as she holds the newborn Jesus. On the left of the painting there is a basket containing some bread, some cloth and a carpenter’s tools – together they reinforce the ordinariness of the situation.
Caravaggio didn’t paint a removed and abstract nativity. Even the dullness of the colours makes the picture feel unimportant. But there are hints that something more is happening the half-dressed shepherd clasps his hands in worship as he looks at the baby Jesus; this baby is the one they’ve come to find, announced to them by the angels. And two characters in the painting wear haloes, representing their holiness and sanctity. One is Mary, the mother of Jesus. You would expect the other to be Christ himself, but he is depicted as just a normal baby. The other figure in the painting with a halo is one of the shepherds. It seems that Caravaggio is honouring the humility and obedience of the shepherds as they come and worship Christ.
But it’s very clear what the focus of the painting is. The eyes of those looking on, and Joseph with his hands spread towards the baby, show that Christ is the centre of the painting. Although he is painted as an ordinary baby boy, all eyes are on him. And although he doesn’t wear a halo, Caravaggio makes a subtle reference to his divinity in the way that he lights the other characters in the scene. Although I think he makes it look as if the light is coming from outside the painting, Jesus is the most brightly-lit figure in the painting. And it almost looks as if the other figures are lit up by him…
While Caravaggio employs this technique very subtly, Rembrandt uses it obviously and powerfully in his 1646 painting also called Adoration of the Shepherds.
The painting depicts a very similar image to Caravaggio’s, although there are more people in the scene. Again, in many ways it is a very humble scene – there are animals around the stable, and the broken rafters above them suggest that this is a pretty rundown building. But something else is going on too. Rembrandt was a master of painting light and shadow to great effect, so the way he lights this painting is significant.
There are two light sources in the painting – one of the shepherds carries a lantern which gives out some light and illuminates the faces around it. But the lamplight is pitiful compared to the other lightsource in the picture – Christ himself! The baby lights up the shepherds as they gather around to worship him.
In both of these paintings, the painters are trying to get across what happened two thousand years ago as Jesus was born. It was, in many ways, an ordinary birth in poor surroundings. But the reality was much greater – God himself had been born as a human, for the sake of all humanity. It was so momentous, it was such good news, that all of heaven broke out in song as angels announced to the shepherds that the Christ had come. These two paintings try to capture both sides of what was going on – the sheer ordinariness of the situation, shot through with the momentous reality of God becoming like us.
“And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.’ When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.'” (Luke 2v8-15)
“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (John 1v9-13)