Art in Advent 2015: The Adoration of the Shepherds
Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–1669) is generally considered one of the greatest painters and printmakers in European Art and the most important in Dutch history. His contributions to art came in a period of great wealth and cultural achievement. Having achieved youthful success as a portrait painter, Rembrandt’s later years were marked by personal tragedy and financial hardships. His depiction of a biblical scene was informed by Rembrandt’s knowledge of the specific text, his assimilation of classical composition, and his observations of Amsterdam’s Jewish population. Because of his empathy for the human condition, he has been called “one of the great prophets of civilization.”
Rembrandt, one of ten children, was 41 when he made this painting. His family, humble and Catholic, converted to Calvinism and educated their most famous son at the Latin School in Leiden. He studied art in Amsterdam, set up a studio at 19 and returned and settled in Amsterdam in 1632. This painting was made there and is but one of hundreds that Rembrandt made based on Biblical themes. The Adoration of the Shepherds painted in 1646, is one of many nativity scenes, there are others attributed to Rembrandt and some of his students, but this is my favourite. I love how dark it is, with the main source of light emanating from the Holy Infant Jesus.
In this nativity scene Mary and Joseph are the loving parents and eight shepherds adore the Christ child, all eyes are on the infant child. It’s a beautifully composed and beautifully lit piece. Chiaroscuro, meaning ‘light’ and ‘shade’ is Rembrandt’s trademark. Here, a warm, caring group – parents and shepherds–surround the baby and everything and anything is lit in a golden light that originates in the cradle.
The kneeling figure with his back to us has his arms outstretched; beside him kneels an older, rugged-faced shepherd, his hands joined in prayer. Centre left, another group, one holds a lamp that is dim compared to the dazzlingly bright light of the world, the light of God. Above the Christ child sits the bird of dawn that, as tradition has it, sings of this momentous event through the night. The viewer’s gaze follows every character’s gaze and always returns to the centre of attention lower right.
God of the watching and waiting ones
God of the shepherds adoring the Babe,
God of the wise men at the end of their quest,
God of the angels giving him the glory,
God of Mary and Joseph.
God made man in Bethlehem, giving us the Word
May we prepare for your coming
With open hearts and minds
And lovingly receive you,
The Lord of life.