So, the Shepherds who were in the foreground yesterday are in the middle ground today – and those in the background seem even further away. Everything is relative. And further forward, we see four more shepherds. We also see the red column supporting the capital carved with the relief of Abraham and Isaac and the back of the ass. Two of the shepherds are tucked into a gap in the ruins, one of whom, in a faded pink cloak, rests his right hand on his chest and tilts his head t,hat unmistakable ‘devotion and awe’ stance which echoes that of the hidden angel on the other side of the painting.
Further forward two more shepherds come into sharper focus, and more intense colour. The careful attention to surface detail allows us to see the shape of their heads with utter clarity, every inflection of the surface, the rugged features, the stubble, the sagging of the skin, the receding hair. These are normal, down-to-earth people, wearing plain, pattern-less clothing similar to that which we saw yesterday. OK, so today there is a hint of colour – the faded pink (it could be the paint that has faded, rather than the fabric – pink paints often do), and the green. But it’s nothing flashy. Yesterday I said there were no accessories, and, yes, there are hats (one in the foreground, one in the middle), but again, nothing special, and the one in the foreground is made of straw – so a cheap, practical item, even if well made – and beautifully painted!
Again, I should ask, how do I know they are shepherds? It is simply that they are ‘poor’, relatively speaking (compared to the people we haven’t seen yet), and that they are down-to-earth. And also, the fact that they are there. Although ox and ass were added in to the biblical account, not to mention dogs, ruins and plants in this case, artists were not in the habit of adding to the ‘normal’ people who turned up (although Mary’s midwives do feature in some paintings) – the shepherds were enough. Not only that, but they are musicians, and there was a minor tradition of shepherds playing music at the Nativity.
The one in green holds a pipe, while the other, who is closer, is grasping a houlette, described as ‘a trowel-like implement used in herding sheep’, proof, if any were needed, that they are shepherds. I used to think that it was the handle of an early stringed instrument – ah well. Nevertheless, there is a small horn hanging round his neck – probably also used for herding. But the pipe is most relevant, as it was piping for which the shepherds were known. The tradition survived into the 19th Century at least, as the pfifferi, as they were called, can even be found in paintings by Turner – although they are not widely reported.
And last, but not least (for today): I know you’ve all been waiting to hear about yesterday’s ‘second thing’. The first was that the shepherds in the distance appear to be looking at the star, rather than any of the angels.
And the second? Well, Luke says that, ‘there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night’ (Luke 2:8). They were ‘in the same country’– which is why they got to Jesus first. Having said that, Luke 2:15 does go on to say,
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.‘
That is, they didn’t leave the field until ‘angels were gone away from them’ – and we know the angels are still here. Or rather, they are here, now, in the foreground, not there… not above the field, which could be another reason why the shepherds might not be looking at them. And remember, that was 12 days ago…
When I worked more regularly at the National Gallery, I used to ask school groups why they thought the shepherds were at the back (even the ones in the ‘foreground’ of today’s detail are), and sadly, they always said, ‘because they are not very important’. It’s just not the case. They were very important. They were the first to get there. The entitled people turned up late and pushed their way to the front – it always happens. Or, to look at it another way, the shepherds had been there for 12 days already, so they didn’t mind stepping back so that someone else could get a closer look. Either way you interpret it, the shepherds come out well.
And there is one more thing, which is really the ‘second thing’: they were ‘in the same country’. They were locals, and as a result they came to represent the Jews who converted to Christianity. Those coming from distant lands – the Magi – were associated with the Gentiles, and we’ll start on them tomorrow.