|The Nativity of the Lord (4)
In many Nativities of the late medieval and subsequent periods there is a tension with respect to how the shepherds ought to be represented. On the one side, they model one part of the range of responses expected of the viewer, through the childlike joy and the humility expressed by their garb and physiognomy, and these are also the responses expected of the faithful at Mass. But at the same time their "humble" features underline the distinctions in social class between a shepherd and a person who owns a painting.
In the image at left (Frankfort, about 1510) the shepherds are like the viewer in that they look in on the scene through an opening in the back of the stable just as we do from the front, through the frame of the painting. Their joyous and simple-hearted response complements the quiet reverence of the figures ranged around the child and the thoughtful solicitude of St. Joseph -- all adding up to the range of appropriate responses a viewer might summon. The simplicity of response in these shepherds can also be seen in several works of the previous century -- a crèche from Burgundy, a Nativity relief in Burgos Cathedral, and an ivory reliquary from the 11th.
But in all these images the shepherds are in a sense even more cut off from the scene than the viewer is. In the Frankfort image at left, Mary and the angel have left just enough open space for us to see the child, but the shepherds' view is obscured by the three angels on the far side of the manger. The one on the left has twisted himself into a position that seems to allow a glimpse of the child, but the one on the right is looking instead toward St. Joseph, who is easier to see.
Similarly, the crèche when seen from the viewer's vantage point gives an easy view of all the details, wheras the shepherds are uncomfortably perched at the top of one wall of the stable, as is the little piper in the Burgos relief.
By contrast, the viewer's privileged position, especially in the Frankfort image at left, gives him a place at the altar, in the sacred space from which the Church normally excludes the laity.
In Counter-Reformation and Baroque art, the shepherds get a better view of the Christ Child, in keeping with the Council of Trent's emphasis on more fully engaging the laity in the liturgy, and their physiognomy becomes less rustic (example).
We can contrast this class-consciousness with the dignity of the shepherds in the 20th-century Sagrada Familia Nativity. Here the approach of the shepherds from the right mirrors that of the Magi from the left, both groups being in open space that allows full view of the nativity scene. The shepherds' clothing is not pitiable but practical, and their faces have a native dignity.
On the next page you will be able to review all the texts and images discussed above and look at a sampling of other Nativities. . . .