If the Shepherds are Invited, So are You

Jason Micheli —  January 1, 2014 — Leave a comment

The Adoration of the Shepherds:

This is from friend, Janet Laisch

Immediately after Caravaggio unveiled the Palermo Adoration, it stirred controversy for its depiction of the Holy Family. If you travel to Sicily in hopes of seeing Caravaggio’s Adoration of the Shepherds from 1609, you will learn it probably no longer even exists.

The Mafia “pulled off one of the biggest art heists of the century” when they stole Caravaggio’s imposing– 11.5 feet x 8 feet — oil on canvas, which hung above the altar at the San Lorenzo Chapel in 1969. See the Palermo Adoration below.


If you drive two and half hours east from Palermo to Messina, you can appreciate Caravaggio’s traditional version of the Adoration of the Shepherds at the Regional Museum. See the Messina Adoration below.



In both compositions our eyes first notice Mary as she is wearing red near the center of the canvas and Christ at whom she gazes. The Palermo Adoration instigated sharp criticism of Caravaggio’s portrayal of the Holy Family.
Caravaggio depicted Mary as sacrilegious since she does not wear a shawl to cover her bare head, neck and shoulders and appears disheveled from childbirth.
Caravaggio painted a realism true of any mother post delivery.
Yet Mary is not just any other mother. She is Christ’s mother.
Christ too lays naked on a bed of cloth and hay mostly in shadow, and it is unclear whether or not Joseph is depicted at all.
Usually when Caravaggio depicted Biblical stories, he preferred depicting raw, authentic emotion that heightened the drama of the event over established tradition.
However, in a traditional manner, the Messina version shows Mary wearing a shawl to cover her neck and head. She holds closely a swaddled, spotlighted Christ whose arm stretches out to caress Mary’s body. Joseph is clearly included and depicted traditionally as an old man standing to Mary’s right. He too wears red, drawing our eyes to him and elevating his status above the shepherds.
Caravaggio is famous for organizing compositions using diagonal lines. In the Palermo Adoration, an angel descends into the scene drawn in powerful diagonals—follow the diagonal line by tracing a line from one outstretched finger to the other arm’s outstretched hand, then follow the diagonal line by tracing the angel’s leg to torso to head.
These diagonal lines charge the painting with activity and immediacy much like a photograph captures a pivotal moment at an event. Too, a man has his back to us, suggesting an unplanned moment is captured. Whereas in the Messina Adoration, the figures themselves are carefully posed along a diagonal line, which stabilizes the composition and focuses our attention on Mary and Christ–the protagonists– who sit on one end of the line slightly apart from Joseph and the shepherds.
For each painting, the light source enters from the left side. However, Caravaggio uses this light source very differently in the paintings.Caravaggio’s most striking element is the stark contrast between light and dark or chiaroscuro. Caravaggio highlighted with light colored glazes the areas spotlighted by this light source and painted in dark glazes, the areas left in shadow.  Caravaggio’s mastery of depicting light and shadow heightens the emotion making the event more immediate before our eyes.
Both images show Christ’s first invited visitors: humble shepherds from the story of Luke 2:16.
“So they hurried and found Mary and Joseph and saw the baby lying in the manger. When the shepherds saw him, they told them what the angel had said about the child.”
These shepherds, unlike the Magi, who visit Christ on Epiphany, do not bring tangible gifts. Instead, Caravaggio depicted their adoration through individual expression and body language. Each face reveals Caravaggio’s ability to paint uniquely different features and expressions. Each body conveys emotion through posture and gesture.
In the Palermo Adoration, two men, possibly both shepherds turn to each other in conversation. The man sitting stirred disapproval as he exposes his bare calves and thighs which are highlighted with bright light much more prominently than Christ who is mostly in shadow in the center of the painting. His back is toward us. He does not carry a staff or rod, so he is most likely Joseph, though painted in an unflattering manner. The man standing is unquestionably a shepherd holding a rod used to protect his flock. The man standing to Mary’s right has been identified as St. Francis of Assisi, largely because the church where this painting once hung was dedicated to him. Too, his brown robe is “Franciscan.” However, he could be a young Joseph or a shepherd bowing his head in prayer.
The man to Mary’s left has been identified as Saint Lawrence though he is more likely a shepherd, since he holds a shepherd’s staff rather than St. Lawrence’s gridiron. In the Palermo Adoration, the identity of each of these men is open to interpretation which goes against the established tradition of depicting this event.
On the other hand, the identification of the remaining characters in the Messina Adoration is straightforward. As stated previously, Joseph is depicted to Mary’s right. Two shepherds kneel and lean toward Christ; one folds his hands in prayer while the other holds a staff. Behind them, a third shepherd stretches his neck to peer over their backs as his hands grip a rod used to protect sheep.
Caravaggio’s Adoration paintings remind us that angels first shared the news of Christ’s birth with the lower class–shepherds who rested in the fields with their sheep at night. It reminds us too that these shepherds followed immediately God’s call.

Regardless of social stature, God invites everyone equally, to meet Christ–starting with those who need him the most.

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Jason Micheli


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