Just in time for Christmas, one of the most beautiful and charming paintings of the Nativity in the history of Western art has been conserved and restored for future generations.
“The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1622) by the Dutch artist Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), now in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, Germany, is probably well-known to you from Christmas cards, ornaments, and the like. The subject was one which the artist painted several times during his career, but this is certainly his finest composition. Thanks to a grant from the local government in North Rhine-Westphalia, the picture has been restored, and is now the centerpiece of an exhibition titled “Wonderful – Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds”, detailing the history and extensive research that went into the preservation of this masterpiece, as well as comparing it to other depictions of this Biblical scene.
In its review, Art Daily duly notes the loving and joyful expressions of the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, and the shepherds, the wonderful depiction of light radiating from the Infant Jesus amidst the nocturnal gloom, and the presence of a very faithful beastie. “The scene is also witnessed by an ox,” AD points out, “lovingly warming the child with his breath in the cold night air. It does not seem too far-fetched to suggest an allusion to St Luke’s Gospel, as well as to the emblem of the painter’s guild that Honthorst had recently entered. With this image Honthorst proudly demonstrates that his lively art has the capacity to enable the beholder to become a witness of the Holy scene.”
Two bits of explanation are needed here, for those unfamiliar with Christian iconography. The authors of the four canonical Gospels – Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – have long been associated with four different animals mentioned in visions experienced by both the Prophet Ezekiel and by St. John the Evangelist in the Bible. Think of them as heraldic symbols, much in the same way the bald eagle represents the United States, or the Lion and the Unicorn represent the British Crown. In St. Luke’s case, he is represented by the sacrificial ox, since his Gospel begins with the story of St. Zechariah, father of St. John the Baptist, offering sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem, and St. Luke emphasizes the sacrifical nature of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection in expiation for the sins of mankind.
In addition, St. Luke is also the patron saint of artists. This patronage stems from an ancient, pious belief that St. Luke was not only a physician – according to his friend St. Paul the Apostle – and writer of both his Gospel as well as the Acts of the Apostles in the Bible, but a painter as well. He was made the patron saint of artists’ guilds all over Medieval Europe, some of which still exist today, and in order to succeed and get the best commissions, artists needed to become members of these early forms of trade unions. Oftentimes an applicant to one of these guilds, such as Honthorst, had to create an original work for submission and evaluation by a guild committee, similar to the way in which today, an apprentice might demonstrate a particular skill set or final product in order to receive a certification or license.
The connection with St. Luke in this painting is most obvious in the fact that both the familiar story of the shepherds and the Nativity’s nocturnal setting both come from St. Luke’s Gospel. In St. Luke 2:8-14, the Evangelist describes how there were shepherds near Bethlehem “keeping the night watch over their flock,” who were startled by the sudden appearance of angels, announcing the birth of the Messiah. The shepherds then decided to go see for themselves, as St. Luke recounts:
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.
When they saw this, they made known the message that had been told them about this child.
All who heard it were amazed by what had been told them by the shepherds.
And Mary kept all these things, reflecting on them in her heart.
Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told to them.
St. Luke 2:15-20
There is no mention in the Bible of any animals being present at the Nativity, but because of St. Luke’s description of the Christ Child being laid in a manger, artists have traditionally included animals in pictorial representations of the scene. A donkey is the animal most commonly shown in these images, but an ox, sheep, and camels are often present as well. Some artists keep things simple, showing no animals at all. Others add all sorts of creatures to their depictions, whether for symbolic or picturesque purposes, and if you look closely enough, you’ll find Christmas images that contain depictions of birds, monkeys, rabbits, and all sorts of other beasties.
Interestingly, Honthorst has chosen to eschew not only the donkey but also the sheep in his painting, and in fact he makes the ox a key figure rather than just part of the background. What is particularly charming here, in addition to the fact that, as Art Daily pointed out in their review quoted above, the ox is warming the Christ Child with its breath, which is just visible curling out from around its nostrils against the rich ochre yellow of St. Joseph’s mantle, is that St. Joseph himself is resting his clasped hands on the animal’s head, as he leans smilingly over the manger. Note as well that the ox is the only one in this painting who looks out at the viewer. None of the humans even notice that we are present at the scene. The ox however, is inviting us in to the picture with a glance, and, in the manner of tame animals like cats and dogs, seems to be asking us, “Did I do good?”
“Wonderful – Honthorst’s Adoration of the Shepherds” is open now at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum in Cologne, and runs through, appropriately enough, February 4, 2018, the weekend of Candlemas (the traditional end of the Christmas season.)