“And the angel said to them “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord” [Luke 2: 8 – 14].
I thought I would return to religious art (see also my previous post 5 “The Last Supper” Paintings). I am choosing to focus on three artworks that depict the annunciation to the shepherds because this is a somewhat overlooked episode from the Bible and most prefer to focus on the nativity scene itself or on the adoration of the Magi when depicting Biblical episodes. The episode concerns the appearance of the angel who tells the shepherds the location of the Christ Child.
I. Annunciation to the Shepherds by Taddeo Gaddi
Maybe this artwork is my favourite because I remember I visited many times the Basilica of Santa Croce when I lived in Florence and this fresco is from there – located in the Baroncelli Chapel. It dates to around 1328 and is said to be one of the first night-time depictions of this kind. Taddeo Gaddi approached differently the presentation of the angel here, especially by the standards of that time, and the spiritual light surrounding the angel and the casting of this light on the rocky surface and on the shepherds are striking. In this fresco, the shepherds are slowly arousing themselves from their deep sleep, their cattle is still asleep and one of their dogs is already awake, looking distrustfully, but also obediently at the source of the light. There are both quietness to this depiction (especially in comparison to the paintings below) and a sense of conviction: the messanger has come and what he has to say is true.
II. Annunciation to the Shepherds by Abraham Hondius
This 1663 painting by the Dutch painter captures the full glory of the divine moment when the angel tells the shepherds of the birth of Christ. Since Abraham Hondius is known for depicting animals, one cow takes the central stage here too, alongside the angel. The animals depicted seem undisturbed by the visit and the shepherds are also not frightened, but seem already ready to receive the divine word. One woman in the centre holds her arms open which may signal both confusion, but also a welcoming position. The faces of others show total captivation and devotion as the angel imparts to them the knowledge that will change their lives, meaning that the hope of salvation and belief will now also govern their daily life alongside seasons. It is important that the first annunciation came to the shepherds who are at the very bottom of the societal ladder.
III. Annunciation to the Shepherds by Joachim Wtewael
This 1606 painting by Dutch painter Joachim Wtewael is one of the most striking visions of the Biblical scene. The colour red is immediately noticeable and signals both attention and importance – the angel is about to announce news of utmost significance. This painting depicts a rather hectic scene – while some farmers are still asleep (they are probably too tired to pay attention), others look frightened and bewildered as they gaze towards the sky. The farmgirl near the cow shields her eyes from the brightness of the angels symbolising by it the fact that her people are used to living by blind hope and faith in their hearts and are unprepared to receive the full physical manifestation of the truth. The broken barn to her right, as well as the torn clothes of her people, also signal the farmers’ poverty and humility in the face of the divine presence shown to them. Some shepherds hold spears and farm forks meaning that, before the angel’s coming, they were never far from warfare, debilitating hard-work and exhaustion.