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We should think of our humanity as a privilege. Marilyn Robinson

Rembrandt: The Adoration of the Shepherds

ArtWay Visual Meditation 1 December 2019

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Rembrandt: The Adoration of the Shepherds

O Come Let us Adore Him

by James Romaine

This print by Rembrandt van Rijn is entitled The Adoration of the Shepherds. However, a careful study of the image reveals a curious absence of sheep. Could this omission be an oversight? But Rembrandt is better known for his nuanced and thoughtful depictions of sacred subjects than for his artistic inattention. Rather than dismissing this simply as an accidental inaccuracy, the absence of sheep could, in fact, be a reward for the careful and thoughtful viewer. Perhaps Rembrandt is offering the more observant viewer an insight into his own artistic purpose.

In any case, Rembrandt’s break with the traditional iconography of lamb-bearing shepherds encourages the viewer to rethink this print’s potential subject. His emphasis is not on a depiction of a narrative drama but rather on the cultivation of the viewer’s own spiritual devotion. In a depiction of a narrative drama, such as the arrival of shepherds with sheep, the viewer is an outside observer of someone else’s piety. Instead, the subject of this print by Rembrandt, regardless of its title, is the revelation of the sacred in the forms of ordinary life and, furthermore, the impact of that revelation. A reoccurring theme in Rembrandt’s art is the power of sight to inform faith. These peasants are spiritually transformed by what they see. And Rembrandt’s print might, similarly, inform and inspire the viewer.

A group of peasants gather to see the infant Christ. As the humble visitors arrive, Joseph rises from an overturned wheelbarrow to welcome them as honored guests. Rembrandt has compositionally balanced the figures at the left with two cows on the right. As a result, the holy family is compositionally central.

For the men, women, and at least one child, who lean in to get a closer look, the sight of this sleeping baby is a revelation of disguised glory. At the recognition of Christ as God incarnate, one man removes his hat in realization that he is in the presence of the sacred. Furthermore, the structure of Rembrandt’s composition draws the viewer’s own spiritual imagination into the light that is this resting child’s divine radiance.

Perhaps the most dramatic actor in this image is not a person but rather light itself. Rembrandt’s method synthesizes natural light and sacred light. There is a lamp on the wall that both illuminates and casts shadows. But the shadowless figure of Christ has its own radiance. This light, both natural and supernatural, creates a sort of halo around the center of Rembrandt’s design.

Rembrandt’s composition forms a halo around Mary and Christ. There a line, a line that is sometimes present and sometimes implied, that encircles the Virgin and child. This line connects the standing man at the left, through the arching line of the stable, with the figure of Joseph at the right. This line continues across the bottom of the composition. The presence of this circle is further accentuated by the fact that it encircles and defines the lightest part of the composition.

Notably, this halo of sacred light is inclusive of more than just Mary and Christ. It also includes Joseph. And it even envelopes several others. Rembrandt’s placement of these common people within the halo, might be read as a visualization of their spiritual transformation. In this moment, as they see, recognize, and adore Christ, these so-called shepherds are enfolded into a realm of the transcendent.

In this print, Rembrandt participates in a Netherlandish tradition of employing disguised halos. In a 15th-century painting that has been attributed to either Robert Campin or a follower of him, the Virgin and child sit in a contemporary room. But the firescreen behind them evokes a halo. This ordinary space is transformed, by the incarnation, into a domestic sanctuary.

In the 19th century Vincent van Gogh painted a sower with a sun setting behind him. The sun forms a halo around the head of this peasant farmer. If the halo is a designation of the holy, Vincent’s painting visualizes the permeation of the sacred throughout the most humble and marginalized corners of God’s creation.

Rembrandt’s 17th-century print is situated at a historical midpoint between Campin and Vincent. Within this Netherlandish tradition of employing everyday motifs as halos, Rembrandt is both a receiver and a transmitter; he is both heir and inspiration.

Through Rembrandt’s print the viewer is also a witness to this revelation of disguised glory. The visual and spiritual focus of Rembrandt’s print is the sleeping Christ. However, the figure who is arguably most important to the viewer’s own participation in this scene is the standing man in the long coat at the left. This man is a surrogate figure. He is the figure with whom the viewer can imaginatively identify. It is through him that the viewer is transformed from an outside spectator to someone who is present in the stable. Rembrandt has situated this surrogate figure, and by extension the viewer, at the edge of the previously described halo. In this very moment this surrogate figure is stepping into the light.  Rembrandt’s print brings the viewer’s imagination into the presence of the sacred.

Regardless of what this print is titled or what biblical or extra-biblical moment it depicts, Rembrandt’s art visualizes a spiritual progression from sight to faith, from recognition to adoration. Rembrandt’s art visualizes a proposition that the sight of Christ’s disguised glory is spiritually transforming. It only remains for each viewer to see and respond for themselves.

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Rembrandt: The Adoration of the Shepherds, with the lamp, ca. 1654, etching (first of three states), 14.2 x 17.2 cm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA.

(Follower of) Robert Campin: The Virgin and Child before a Firescreen, ca. 1440, oil with egg tempera on oak with walnut additions, 63.4 x 48.5 cm. National Gallery, London, UK.

Vincent van Gogh: Sower with Setting Sun, 1888, oil on canvas, 73.5 x 93 cm. E.G. Bührle Foundation, Zürich, Switzerland.

James Romaine is an Associate Professor of Art History at Lander University in Lander, SC, USA. He is the co-founder of the Association of Scholars of Christianity in the History of Art (ASCHA). His videos on art and faith can be seen as Seeing Art History on Youtube, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCGInLlFDxg-GgCEUQkjKwng.

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ON THE WEBSITE   NEW ON THE WEBSITE   NEWS

1. ART FOR ADVENT – 2019 marks the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt van Rijn’s death, this has been called “the year of Rembrandt” with numerous exhibitions celebrating his art. Art for Advent—2019 explores Rembrandt’s art. First Sunday of Advent: Annunciation, c.1635. Written by Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker and narrated by Victoria Emily Jones. https://youtu.be/L6SxaoK4Pcc

2. FOR ARTISTS – Be a part of a creative arts gathering exploring the intersections of art, faith, and culture. Submissions are now open for The Breath and The Clay Art Gallery, happening March 20-22, 2020 in Winston Salem, North Carolina. This year's theme is perception. If you are a visual artist, photographer, sculptor or installation artist, click here to submit your works to this juried show to be presented at The Breath and the Clay. Submissions due by January 15, 2020.

3. JONATHAN EVENS ON THE ART AND CHRISTIANITY AWARDS 2019 – The Art and Christianity Awards in the UK are one of the more positive legacies of the new millennium, being set up in 2003 to draw attention to the abundance of creative responses to the Year 2000. Although the first round of awards only invited entries from churches and cathedrals, now they celebrate the successes and diversity of artistic projects in religious buildings of all faith traditions throughout Britain. The Awards continue to demonstrate that commissioning new art and architecture is an emphatically positive and outward-looking step to take. https://www.artlyst.com/features/art-christianity-awards-positive-new-millennium-legacy-revd-jonathan-evens/

4. EL GRECO IN PARIS - Until 10 February 2020, Grand Palais, Galerie sud-est, Winston Churchill Entrance, avenue Winston Churchill, Paris 8ème: Greco. This retrospective is the first major exhibition in France ever to be dedicated to this artist. Born in Crete in 1541, Domenico Theotokopoulos, known as El Greco, undertook his initial apprenticeship in the Byzantine tradition before refining his training in Venice and then Rome. However, it was in Spain that his art flourished, firmly taking root from the 1577s. Attracted by the incredible promise of the El Escorial site, the artist brought Titian’s colour, Tintoretto’s audacity and Michelangelo’s heroic style. This eloquent combination, original yet consistent with his own way, gave El Greco (who died four years after Caravaggio) a unique place in the history of painting, as the last grand master of the Renaissance and the first great painter of the Golden Age. Rediscovered in the late 19th century, celebrated by authors, acknowledged and embraced by the 20th century avant-garde, the artist has enjoyed the dual prestige of tradition and modernity, linking Titian to the Fauvists and Mannerism to Cubism, Expressionism, Vorticism and Abstraction up to the Action painting. https://www.grandpalais.fr/en/grand-palais-public-entrances-0

5. LEONARDO DA VINCI IN PARIS - Until 24 February 2020, Musée du Louvre, Rue de Rivoli, Paris : Leonardo da Vinci. The year 2019 marks the 500-year anniversary of the death of Leonardo da Vinci in France, of particular importance for the Louvre, which holds the largest collection in the world of da Vinci’s paintings, as well as 22 drawings. The museum is seizing the opportunity in this year of commemorations to gather as many of the artist’s paintings as possible around the five core works in its collections: The Virgin of the Rocks, La Belle Ferronnière, the Mona Lisa (which will remain in the gallery where it is normally displayed), the Saint John the Baptist, and the Saint Anne. The objective is to place them alongside a wide array of drawings as well as a small but significant series of paintings and sculptures from the master’s circle. This unprecedented retrospective of da Vinci’s painting career will illustrate how he placed utmost importance on painting, and how his  investigation of the world, which he referred to as “the science of painting,” was the instrument of his art, seeking nothing less than to bring life to his paintings. The exhibition is the culmination of more than ten years of work, notably including new scientific examinations of the Louvre’s paintings, and the conservation treatment of three of them, allowing for better understanding of da Vinci’s artistic practice and pictorial technique. Clarification of his biography has also emerged through the exhaustive reexamination of archival documents. The exhibition will paint the portrait of a man and an artist of extraordinary freedom. Hours: https://www.louvre.fr/en/hours-admission-directions

5. ON THE SPIRITUAL MATTER OF ART IN ROME - Until 8 March 2020, MAXXI, National Museum for 21st Art, Via Guido Reni, 4A, Rome: On the Spiritual Matter of Art. What does it mean today to talk about spirituality? on the spiritual matter of art is a project that investigates the issue of the spiritual through the lens of contemporary art and, at the same time, that of the ancient history of Rome. In a layout offering diverse possible paths, the exhibition features the works of 19 artists, leading names on the international scene from very different backgrounds and cultures. In a rigorously non-confessional vision, the exhibition, therefore, brings together works of contemporary art with a selection of archaeological relics from the capital’s leading museums: the Vatican Museums, the National Roman Museum, the Capitoline Museums and the National Etruscan Museum at Villa Giulia. Hours: https://www.maxxi.art/en/events/della-materia-spirituale-dell-arte/

6. REINOUD VAN VUGHT IN BERLIN – Until 20 December, Galerie Born Berlin, Potsdamer Straße 58, Berlin: Reinoud van Vught, Procession. Works from Reinoud van Vught, born 1960, have featured in numerous group exhibitions with his Dutch painter colleagues Henri Jacobs, Han Klinkhamer, and Marc Mulders at Galerie Born. His first solo exhibition in the Galerie Born, Berlin is titled “Procession”. This can be understood as a reference to the repeated forms in his often large-format works on paper and his paintings. However, the title also resonates with references to the ritual of painting. Although we primarily encounter the term in religious contexts – the procession in honour of God – the artist understands it in its application to art. Tu – Sa, 12 – 18 h. https://galerie-born.de/reinoud-van-vught-procession/

For more exhibitions, lectures, conferences etc. inside and outside your country, click here

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Other recent meditations:
- December 2019: Samuel Buri: Wunderbar, Rat, Kraft
- November 2019: Arent Weevers: Triptych
- November 2019: Murillo: The Birth of St. John the Baptist
- November 2019: Betye Saar: The Alpha & The Omega

For more Visual Meditations, see under Artists