The Adoration of the Shepherds

Caravaggio (1609)

Here we are again, the curtain thrown back on this prayer of muted amazement (good name for a band). Caravaggio is on the run by now, a year from his death, and isnt interested in seraphic light or hosts of angels, but yanks the traditional Nativity down from heaven to low earth. This is about humility, simplicity, reality: look how the infant, the shepherds and St Joseph (whose halo we really have to look for) are all so attentive to the mother. The bracing contrast between the dingy darkness of the background and the benign glow of the foreground brings the event crashing over us through the canvas: the most universal of all experiences in radical, sharp focus. Look at the mens hands, so expressively tactile and evocative whether in prayer or amazement, as if to highlight their daily toil or even the act of painting. Marys embrace and full-hearted exhaustion foreshadow the hollow horror of the Pietà on Good Friday, as – for now – her son can gaze up at her lovingly, while the animals and the carpenters toolbox remind us of the simplicity of the episode. Its also a reminder to all of us to divine and cherish the wide ocean of difference between seeing and knowing. Bonhoeffer says, our eyes are at fault, that is all”. Although we see poverty and darkness, exhaustion and grime, we know that the unseen presence of grace, sympathy, and (most of all) love, miraculously warms these things into wealth, light, renewal, and redemption. We might need a bit of optimism over the coming weeks… Happy Christmas all!