When the angels went away from them to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go, then, to Bethlehem to see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
So they went in haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. (Lk 2:15-16)
There are few images more endearing to the Christian faith than the scene known as the Adoration of the Shepherds. It is a scene perhaps less noble yet more charming than the Adoration of the Magi. While the kings travelled many miles in caravan from foreign lands following a star to offer homage, the shepherds were keeping night-watch over the sheep when angels announced to them the birth of the Messiah. The magi were prosperous gentiles; the shepherds were rustic Jews such that the angelic message – “for today in the city of David a savior has been born for you” – certainly had its full, intended effect. The magi followed a bright star that perhaps could be seen by day; the shepherds were custodians of the night, guardians in the darkness called forth into the glorious light. In Catholic art, the biblical narrative of the shepherds adoring the new born Jesus is most often shown at night so that the light in the image is Jesus Himself.
For this 4th Sunday in Advent and for our 2018 celebration of Christmas we are using for our reflection a quotation taken from the Christmas Mass at dawn. To properly emphasize these words from Sacred Scripture we have chosen to adorn our bulletin cover with a work by the eclectic painter Anton Raphael Mengs entitled (of course) The Adoration of the Shepherds (1770).
Mengs is a very interesting character. He was born of a Danish, Jewish father in German Bohemia and raised in the Jewish faith. His father took him to Rome when he was thirteen years old and only three years later he returned to Saxony to become a court painter at the age of sixteen. On his second visit to Rome, Mengs married a peasant girl who had once posed for his paintings. He married her after converting to Catholicism. He became the director of the Vatican school of painting. Upon his death he was buried in a Catholic Church in Rome dedicated nationally to the Netherlands. He was the father to twenty children.
In our beautiful image we see the confluence of many styles: the exuberant color of the Baroque, the theatrical energy of Rococo, the contrasting light of Tenebrism, and the introduction of forms later to be associated with the Neoclassicism style founded by Mengs. Mengs also unites the three orders of being: the preternatural (the angels), the supernatural (the God-made-man) and the natural indicated by the many human images, but also by the single canine – representative of the celebration of all God’s creation.
Angels incense above in the liturgy of heaven; one angel holds an olive branch while pointing in the direction of the earth. On earth the peaceful light of the Christ Child is surrounded by hands of praise forming the four points of the compass (Joseph’s hand being “south”) indicating the far reaching vitality of the moment. Mengs has painted both a divine and bucolic scene.
May your hearts be filled with the joy and wonder of the adoring shepherds! Blessed Christmas!
–Steve Guillotte, Director of Pastoral Services