This is the first of two days of Shepherds. Today I’m not interested in the two in the foreground – well, the foreground of this detail, anyway, they are quite a way back in the painting. Leaning over the wooden fence, we can tell they are shepherds because they are poorly dressed, with dull, plain fabrics, no patterns, no accessories. But further back there are more shepherds, ‘keeping watch over their flock’. They are the ones of interest today. The fence the foreground pair peer over, like the rest of the building, is in a poor state of repair, and only a few of the vertical slats have lasted above the horizontal plank to which they are attached. One, just in from the left, still has its original sharp point, which seems, probably intentionally, to be pointing to a shepherd, ‘seated on the ground’.
I am, of course, quoting from two separate sources. The second comes from the well-known Christmas carol:
While shepherds watch'd their flocks by night, All seated on the ground, The angel of the Lord came down, And glory shone around.
Fair enough, but not all of these shepherds are seated on the ground. We have seen one that is, although he leans back on his left arm, his right raised to shade his eyes from the glare of the glory. This has presumably only just shone round about them, as, in the process of leaning back, his right leg, knee bent, has lifted off the ground and his foot is suspended in mid-air. There are clear signs of bright illumination on the upper sides of his legs, arms, torso and head, however minute the detail must be. So he is seated, but just to the left another shepherd stands, legs apart, leaning on a staff, and looking up – but more towards their companion on the adjacent hill, rather than up into the heavens. At the top of a small escarpment, where we can see four sheep precariously poised, is a third shepherd waving both arms in the air, with both legs bent and a flap of drapery blowing out behind. From what I can see of his face, he is looking directly upwards, his head tilted as far back as possible. The two shepherds on the ‘plain’ have more sheep with them, at the bottom of the escarpment, and two alert, upright forms, which are probably dogs. These three are the very shepherds mentioned in Luke 2:8-9:
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
I’m not entirely convinced that all three are ‘sore afraid’ – the one standing is certainly only vaguely interested, as far as I can see, but the other two look more perturbed. The sheep are also entirely indifferent. Sheep often are. I’m also not entirely convinced that it is night time – however, here the artist has a problem, as we have to be able to see what is in the foreground of the painting. Also, he has another problem, given that, in the same way that yesterday’s detail was some time in the future, this is some time in the past. The angels appeared to the shepherds on Christmas – Christmas night, to be precise – whereas we already know (I have already implied) the Wise Men have already arrived here, so most of the painting is happening on 6 January – this detail happened is 12 days ago. It may have been night then, but now it is day. Nevertheless, I think there is an uncanny sense of nocturnal illumination in the background of today’s detail, given the way that the shepherds and their flock glow against the dark landscape. This technique – putting more that one part of the story into the same painting – is known as ‘continuous narrative’ and was very common.
There are two other things to consider when reading this text, and looking at this detail. The first is that, in the context of the whole painting, none of the shepherds ‘abiding in the field’ appear to be looking at any of the nine angels flying in the sky – and certainly not the hidden angel in the ruins. Rather, they appear to be looking at the star. So let us return to this star, and see what the Golden Legend says about it (the Golden Legend is the name given to a collection of stories of the lives of the Saints which was gathered together by the Franciscan Jacopo da Voragine in the 1260s, and became one of the most important sources for artists):
And ye ought to know that there be three opinions of this star, which Remigius the doctor putteth, saying that: Some say that it was the Holy Ghost which appeared to the three kings in the form of a star, which after appeared upon the head of Jesu Christ in the likeness of a dove. Others say, like to S. John Chrysostom, that it was an angel that appeared to the shepherds, and after appeared to the kings… in form of… a star. Others say more reasonably and more veritably that it was a star new created, and made of God.
My feeling would be that the artist – or maybe even the patron – or more probably, the patron’s ecclesiastical advisor, if he wasn’t ecclesiastical himself – knew this passage well, and wanted to include all three possibilities. One: ‘it was the Holy Ghost’, later to appear as a dove. Maybe that’s why the dove appears just below the star. Two: ‘an angel… in [the] form of a star’. This would be why the shepherds are looking at it. Three: ‘a star new created’. Well, it looks like no other star, and shines more brightly than the sun, as the Legend itself goes on to say. It could be any one of these three interpretations, or, for that matter, all three. We’ll come back to the ‘second thing’ tomorrow!