LOOK: Adoration of the Shepherds by Hugo van der Goes
After the angel of the Lord announced the birth of the Messiah to a band of shepherds, “they went with haste” to the place where he lay (Luke 2:16). The Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes shows the shepherds’ hurried arrival at the manger. One of them gallops through the door panting, having run from the scene in the upper right corner, and another removes his hat and kneels. Two more stand behind them just outside the shed—one playing a recorder, the other in midclap.
In the center of the composition, the Christ child squirms in his makeshift bed, surrounded by his parents, an ox and ass, and a coterie of angels. At the foot of the manger is a sheaf of wheat, an allusion to Jesus as “the living bread that came down from heaven” (John 6:51) and, by extension, to the Eucharist. This painting, after all, was originally made, most likely, to hang over an altar.
In the foreground two men draw open a set of curtains, revealing God made flesh. An actual wooden rod is attached to the panel and painted with rings, enhancing the illusion. Most scholars agree that the men represent Isaiah (left) and Jeremiah (right), Old Testament prophets who foretold Christ (see, e.g., Isa. 7:14; Jer. 23:5–6)—though John Moffitt suggests they are the apostles Mark and Paul, two New Testament personages who specifically associate themselves with a veil as a sign of divine manifestation. Either way, these figures act as intermediaries between the viewer and the depicted narrative, inviting us, like the shepherds, to bear witness to the wondrous mystery of the Incarnation and to respond in adoration.
This Adoration, sometimes referred to as van der Goes’s Berlin Nativity, is not the artist’s most famous painting on the subject. That would be the central panel of the Portinari Altarpiece, painted a few years earlier.
LISTEN: “Where Shepherds Lately Knelt” | Words by Jaroslav J. Vadja, 1987, © Concordia Publishing House | Music by Carl F. Schalk, 1987, © GIA Publications, Inc. | Performed by Koiné on Emmanuel Lux, 2012
Where shepherds lately knelt and kept the angel’s word,
I come in half-belief, a pilgrim strangely stirred;
but there is room and welcome there for me,
but there is room and welcome there for me.
In that unlikely place I find him as they said:
sweet newborn babe, how frail! and in a manger bed,
a still small voice to cry one day for me,
a still small voice to cry one day for me.
How should I not have known Isaiah would be there,
his prophecies fulfilled? With pounding heart I stare:
a child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me,
a child, a son, the Prince of Peace for me.
Can I, will I forget how Love was born, and burned
its way into my heart, unasked, unforced, unearned,
to die, to live, and not alone for me,
to die, to live, and not alone for me?