One of the most enduring and endearing Christmas images is that of a heavenly host of angels calling to fearful shepherds in the fields of Judea that on this day, in the city of David, a Savior was born. These humble shepherds are the first to hear the proclamation that has remained integral to worship in the Christian faith, “’Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom he is pleased!’” (Luke 2:14). The shepherds who find the infant Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger are the first to worship Jesus as the Messiah in the chronological narrative of Gospels.
How to Know Them and Where to Find Them: In contrast to the rich and gift-bearing magi who come to praise the newborn in the Gospel of Matthew, the shepherds are usually depicted in plain clothes. In many depictions throughout the centuries, they have been portrayed as peasants, often times in clothing contemporary to the artist. Sometimes they are shown holding bagpipes, the traditional instrument associated with sheep herders, as they were in the a painting exhibited at MOBIA earlier this year, loaned from the Cloisters.
The shepherds can be found in general Nativity scenes, but there exists a subset of those scenes, called the Adoration of the Shepherds, that specifically focuses on their encounter with the Holy Family.
The shepherds are also found in portrayals of the annunciation to them by the angels.
Shepherd Sightings: The Metropolitan Museum of Art has several depictions of the shepherds of the Nativity story, including one by Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna. Another image, by a follower of Jan Joest of Kalkar, is based off of the visions of St. Bridget of Sweden, a fourteenth-century mystic who envisioned the Christ child as emanating a great light.
In Today’s World: The attendants of the Nativity have long stirred the imaginations of artists. Lew Wallace, a Civil War general and author, devotes a lengthy passage to the experience of the shepherds in his novel Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Though best known as a film, the original 1880 novel introduces the story by lavishing attention on the various figures who adored the infant Jesus.
The shepherds are treated to screen time in 2006’s The Nativity Story. Before the birth of her son, Mary encounters an elderly shepherd on way to Bethlehem who tells her that he was never blessed enough in life to receive a gift. Later, when the shepherds come to adore the child, Mary holds her baby out the teary-eyed shepherd, and when he touches the infant, she tells him, “Each of us is given a gift.”
Whether it be in tender, in-depth portrayals like this, through the singing of a Christmas carol like “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, or in a family’s chreche, lovingly displayed every holiday season, the inclusion of the shepherds brings a sense of humility, wonder, and awe to the Nativity scene.
- T.C. for MOBIA