This is the seventh in a series of ten reflections looking at the Christmas story through the eyes of some of the greatest artists in history.
7. THE ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS
Artwork: The Adoration of the Shepherds – Giorgione, National Gallery of Art, Washington
Reading: Luke 2:15-20
This is such a daring way to compose a nativity scene. Nearly every other Renaissance painter places the Holy Family smack-dab in the center of their composition. Lesser characters like shepherds, wise men, angels, sheep and other figures get arranged around them.
He places the shepherds right in the middle of his frame.
Dressed in worn and ragged clothes, the shepherds kneel like contrite pilgrims, bare-headed before the Christ child.
To their left our eye is drawn off down a winding road through the town and out to the mountains in the distance. These men don’t belong here among the civilized folk. They are fringe-dwellers, outliers, wild men from the hills beyond normal society. In 1st Century Israel, shepherds were despised. They were considered second-class citizens and untrustworthy. They were not permitted to fulfill judicial offices nor be admitted in court as witnesses.
Joachim Jeremias says of shepherds at the time, “Most of the time they were dishonest and thieving; they led their herds onto other people’s land and pilfered the produce of the land. Because they were often months at a time without supervision, they were often accused of stealing some of the increase of the flock.”
But Giorgione not only places them in the center of his composition, he forms them, together with Mary and Joseph, into a rectangle around the infant Jesus. They are a unique fellowship, sharing a peculiar bond. All four of them have been visited by angels. All four of them know that the child between them is unlike any other child ever born.
And all four of them adopt a posture of humility and servitude. Joseph seems deep in prayer or contemplation. Mary kneels before Jesus. The shepherds’ heads are bowed. They are speechless and spellbound, full of love for the baby.
Of all the people in the world to be the first to worship Christ it was these marginal ones. As utter outliers their hearts must have leapt to hear the message, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Them? Yes, even them! Outliers no longer!
O Lord, open my lips.
And my mouth shall declare your praise.
Glory to God in the highest.
And peace to God’s people on earth.
At the coming in the flesh of your own dear Son,
O great Light of all nations, help us to sing the new song
of your loving presence
as we see your majesty, honor and power
in the face of our blessed Savior.
We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.
By Ruth Haley Barton