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What the Shepherds Saw When the Light Shone Upon Them

Regis Martin

Nov 30, 2022

"What really is going on at that moment, which so grips the artist’s imagination, moving him to bend every effort of will and skill to re-produce, under the sign of paint, the precise reaction of the shepherds on first seeing the Holy Infant? "

Should it surprise anyone that countless artists from the past have sought to capture the precise moment when the shepherds, answering the angelic summons, find themselves gazing upon the human face of God? They were, after Mary and Joseph, the very first to see the Child about whom the angel had spoken. “This will be a sign for you,” he told them. “You will find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12; cf. 2:16).

Filled with expectant longing, therefore, and with all possible haste, they leave their flocks behind and go at once to the place they’d been told the Child would be. Accompanied, to be sure, by choirs of angels singing with exultant voice the glory of the Lord, who has come among us as Savior and King.

So, how does one capture that sudden look of stupefaction that surely must have illumined the faces of those few simple shepherds, who have come to witness the stupendous event of God’s entry into our world, wearing the disguise of a tiny child? Such is the challenge confronting any artist faced with the scandalous fact of the enfleshment of the Eternal Word in human history.

None have pulled it off more masterfully, it seems to me, than the 17th-century Dutchman Mathis Stom, an artist steeped in the style of the baroque, who often wrestled with the problem, producing a half dozen or more separate versions of the same scene. Following upon the example of Caravaggio, who, earlier in the century, tried his own hand at depicting the scene, Stom managed to get it exactly right with brushstrokes of the most extraordinary realism. His Adoration of the Shepherds, commissioned in 1646 for a Capuchin monastery in Palermo, conveys an immediacy so startling that the viewer cannot look away.

How, then, does he do it? Or, more to the point, what really is going on at that moment, which so grips the artist’s imagination, moving him to bend every effort of will and skill to re-produce, under the sign of paint, the precise reaction of the shepherds on first seeing the Holy Infant? A miracle, no less, of artistic monstration will be required to impart to the viewer something of that same realism and immediacy which the shepherds felt on seeing the Incarnate God.

The answer, in a word, is chiaroscuro, a lovely Italian word suggesting an artful arrangement of light and dark, the interplay of which heightens the sense of drama suffusing the scene. So that we too might see with the most striking detail the hands and faces of the shepherds, their features literally flooded with light. Against the backdrop of shade, an astonishment of wonder unfolds before the viewer’s eye. And, then, all at once, we realize that the source of the light, the shining incandescence of the scene, is not coming from them at all, but from the Child, in whom all light may be found. Indeed, he is the light. The light of eternity itself bursting into time. Yes, the shepherds are clearly bathed in the light, but it is Christ’s own light that envelops the scene. Inviting us as well, with eyes wide open, to enter into the same experience, the same epiphany of light.

But, again, how can this be? One is struck over and over by the sheer incredibility of the moment. It is no longer the mere technical question that the artist himself feels constrained to answer. No, not that at all. But the theological puzzle which the scene itself presents. How is it possible that simple shepherds should evince such wonderment and delight before a mere baby? It is the complete and utter disproportion between the figure of the mysterious child, and that of the simple shepherds, that leaves the mind baffled and confused. 

It is, in other words, the sheer overwhelming mystery of Christmas morning itself that we must try and make sense of.  “That is where God is,” Pope Francis reminds us at Holy Mass on this Christmas Eve, “in littleness. This is the message: God does not rise up in grandeur, but lowers himself into littleness. Littleness,” he continues, “is the path that he chose to draw near to us, to touch our hearts, to save us and to bring us back to what truly matters.” 

Thus, by making himself helpless and small he reveals the true majesty and power of the Godhead. Pope Benedict has likewise expressed this sentiment, from a Christmas homily preached in the final months of his pontificate, reminding us that here is the secret sign- language God himself prefers when communicating with his children. And in God’s eyes we are all his children, a bond forged by the blood of his Son forever. “God’s sign is that he makes himself small; he becomes a child; he lets us touch him and he asks for our love.” 

What better way of dealing with so frail and finite a creature as man? Notice that there is no heavy artillery blasting away at bunkers piled high with reasoned resistance. He does wish to pulverize our minds with clever syllogisms. But to offer himself to us in the least intimidating, least prepossessing way possible. As a little child wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger

Could things be made more simple than this?


Originally published on National Catholic Register and republished with permission from the author.


Image: Matthias Stom, “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” ca. 1650 (Turin). Public Domain


Regis Martin Regis Martin, S.T.D., is a professor of theology and a faculty associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio. He podcasts at In Search Of The Still Point and his latest book, Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection, was released in 2021.

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