Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Shepherds (1609)
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”
So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely[d] known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. -Luke 2:8-19 NKJV
Above is a closeup of the Christ-child. Of his nativity scenes (Rubens did numerous), I think this painting has the most life-like infant Jesus.
You might not realize it when viewing this painting on the web, but in reality it is over 13 feet tall. And that highlights a problem. Rubens understood how distance affected the perception of his paintings. Unless you’re Odd Nerdrum, most contemporary artists paint relatively small. In fact, I think much of the knowledge of how to pull off such large canvases has been lost or at least lays dormant.
If you were to go to St. Paul’s Church in Antwerp, Belgium you could stand back at the proper distance. This would allow you to see the entire painting at once. The downsides are that the church is quite bright, the painting is hung high up on the wall so seeing the details as close as you can on the blog would be difficult to arrange. Overall, the effect in the painting would be better seen if it was hung lower and there was far less light. Most of Caravaggio’s paintings tend to exist in such a setting.
Although it’s hard to locate in the VR tour, the painting is on the left (mostly hidden by a column), midway down the main aisle of the church.
Below, is a closeup of the standing shepherd, shielding his eyes from the brightness of Christ. In fact, Christ is the light-source in the painting. This was a common technique in the Baroque period – light = God, dark = evil.
From the quality of the face, I think that we’re seeing more assistant work here than Rubens’ own hand. Bear in mind that Rubens had a large workshop, along with a constant supply of commissions. He would occasionally farm out many stages of production to his assistants, only reserving the finishing touches for himself. Van Dyck was one such assistant for a time.
Here is the kneeling shepherd and an older lady (Martha?). This shepherd’s head is more typical of Rubens’ skill.
And it wouldn’t be a complete Rubens without a few floating cherubs!
Below is the preliminary sketch Rubens did for the painting. It is roughly 25″ x 18″.
Remember to keep Christ the center of this season. And if you skipped over it, read through the story above.