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Bartolome Esteban Murillo’s Adoration of the Shepherds

Welcome to our 25th day of art on Nativity.

This work is by Bartolome Esteban Murillo, a Spanish Baroque painter who spent his entire career in Seville, Spain. Known for his religious paintings, peasant children, and lively street scenes, Murillo’s works were very popular, both in his life time and after.

Churches were the largest patron of the arts during the 1600’s, and during the Counter Reformation the Catholic Church  invested heavily in art. There was a need for works that communicated the reforms the church was making and to reinforce key doctrinal points.

Murillo was a devout Catholic with deeply held religious convictions. He was also a man with great imagination who could inject compassion and realism into Biblical figures making them come alive. His paintings allowed people to insert themselves into the story and identify with the characters, drawing them into a deeper devotion and understanding.

Imagination is a powerful tool of both art and religion. In Murillo’s works we see a master combine the two to give us a powerful painting of the Incarnation. There are 7 figures in this painting, 5 of which are highlighted by light.

The most notable figure is the Christ Child, the only source of light in the painting. The ‘Light of the World’ has come, and in this painting we see His light literally illuminating the darkness. The light reveals to us that this baby is God incarnate. The baby is also naked, helpless, and very much a real baby revealing to us that God has indeed come in the flesh. While we often see the figure of the infant Christ with rays shining from him, we rarely see so clearly the image of ‘the people who walk in darkness will see a great light’.

The light illuminates Mary, and reveals a young woman, her red dress an allusion to Christ future suffering and death. She gazes at the child, unwrapping him for the shepherd’s to see.

Then we see the shepherds, each a real person with distinct features. The three that we see most clearly show three different stages of life. We have a fairly young man, an elderly man, and a middle aged man, perhaps all generations of a family. This was a convention used by Murillo in other paintings of the shepherds to show inclusiveness, that Christ came for all, regardless of age or station in life.

In some of his Adoration paintings he shows the shepherds with three humble gifts, eggs, a chicken, a lamb. The gifts play off of the gifts that the wealthy Magi show up with. This shows an inclusion of people from different classes and different races. The shepherds and Magi, due to God’s direct interventions were included in the Biblical story.  God sent angels to the shepherds, including the lowly in the birth of His son. God sent a star to guide the Magi to His son, including the foreigner. We are so used to the wise men and shepherds being a part of nativity scenes that we might overlook the fact that they didn’t just happen to wander upon the scene, but that God had directed them there. The nativity story is the pivotal point in the Biblical narrative, and at this crucial juncture God brings together groups that would not normally come into contact with one another.

The world that Murillo lived in was the world of exploration and expansion. The countries of Europe were funding explorations to find new trade routes, to discover new lands. Colonies were being settled in newly acquired territories. The known world was expanding rapidly and the Catholic Church had it’s hand it that expansion, and in missionary work in these New Worlds. It is in this context that Murillo was painting his religious works, and it is unsurprising that an element in those works was to emphasize both how personal faith is, but also how all-encompassing Christ message was.

The use of light, along with highlighting the divinity of Christ, also makes this a very intimate moment. We can feel the silence of the night, the quiet joy in the birth of the new baby. We are given the back of the kneeling shepherd. Often artist place a figure in this way to invite us to adopt the perspective of that figure, who while in the painting, is also looking at the same from the same point as we are. In this case there is a space left for us to join the kneeling circle and join in the adoration of the child.

This makes the viewing the painting a personal and intimate moment, easily encouraging an attitude of worship and devotion in the viewer This is the purpose of this painting, to bring us to that place.

If you have enjoyed looking at this Adoration of the Shepherd’s you might enjoy some of the other articles at this link.

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