Take some time to consider Caravaggio’s Adoration of the Shepherds. Don’t scan and speed-read, but if you have the time, stop and stare.
First, where is the focal point of this painting? Where does our gaze go first, and where does it seem to land? Is there more than one focal point? Are we above, below, or eye-level with this scene? It seems the lines, the gaze of the shepherds, the direction of the hands points us to Mary and her Child. But a secondary focal point is the faces of the shepherds. Caravaggio wants us to look where they are looking. But once there, Mary’s face is in shadow, and the Christ-child is faced away from us, so we go back to the shepherds, who can see His face. Our eyes go back and forth from the Child to the Shepherds, and that is as the artist would have it. We are almost eye-level with this scene, which suggests Caravaggio wants us to come in as the shepherds, seeing, absorbing the scene, and beginning to crouch to see and adore more clearly.
Second, consider the colours used. What colour dominates? What colours have been used? Of the three primary colours (red, blue, yellow), which has been used? On a colour wheel, has Caravaggio used colours complementary to one another (i.e. opposite each other on the colour wheel), or analogous to one another (next to each other on the colour wheel)?
Why? Caravaggio has chosen a warm red for Mary’s clothes, and given the shepherd closest to her exactly the same colour for his robe, with nearly parallel lines directing our gaze to that section of the painting. The colours of the other robes, the skin tones of all, the colours in the stable, are all browns, yellows, beiges, and golden tones. The scene exudes warmth, and joy. Caravaggio is avoiding contrasts at all costs, trying to evoke a very natural and life-like manger scene. And yet — the golden light is enough to alert us that something is not as natural as it normally would be. Some divine intervention is here, too.
Third, what sort of lines has the artist used? Are they sharp and geometrical? Are they curvilinear? Are they bold outlines? Using oil, Caravaggio avoids dark outlines, and creates very natural, biomorphic, curvilinear shapes. The lines are smooth and calming, but they flow towards the focal point. The painting is not symmetrical, but it nevertheless has a convergence point. Even the sharp bits of straw direct our eyes to Mary and the Child. The artist wants the scene to be as natural as possible, because it is in its very naturalness that we will absorb the supernaturalness of it.
Fourth, where is the light coming from? What does this suggest? What is illuminated and what is in shadow? The scene seems to be a night-time scene, and the light seems too bright for a candle, so the light seems to be a heavenly source. It is shining in from above. But, whether it is the Star of Bethlehem, the glory of angels, moonlight, we do not know. We can merely tell the light is beautiful, and illuminating a humble scene. Supernature and nature are combining in one scene of mystery.
Fifth, consider the symbols. Almost invisible, behind Mary are two figures with a long history in Christian portrayals of the Nativity – the ox and the ass, traditionally made to represent Jew and Gentile (Is 1:3), both rebellious, but now adoring Christ. In Caravaggio’s work, they are present, but not as icons of devotion. They are simply animals in the background. Caravaggio wants to stand in the tradition of Nativity scenes, but he is determined to portray this scene in all its humble realism. Two people have halos, Mary and Joseph (the man third from Mary’s right). But the halos are so thin as to be almost invisible. Carpenter’s tools and some dry bread in the front show us that this is a scene of realistic poverty. Caravaggio is not abandoning the symbols, but he is adapting them for his purposes.
Sixth, notice the physical gestures. Look at the hands – Mary’s, and the shepherds. What do they tell us of how to feel about this Child? Notice the postures – Mary’s draped and exhausted posture, the shepherds’ awkward stoop and crouch. Notice how Caravaggio has created a subtle divide between Mary and the shepherds through the parallel red cloaks, and the black cloth (the darkest thing in the painting) draped over her. She is everything normal, natural, and homely, but there is a Divine presence here, and the shepherds (and even Joseph) stop short of irreverently reaching past this divide with their hands.
Seventh, notice the men, and their expressions. They are dirty, scraggly, unkempt. The sun has aged them. Their clothes are almost rags, in one case. But what do these hardened, simple, poor men say with their eyes? Mary’s face is in shadow, for Caravaggio wants us to focus on the expressions of the shepherds: awe, gratitude, amazement. These are hard faces softening in the glow of what they are seeing.
Caravaggio is blending the supernatural and the natural, the divine and the human, the presence of grace within a fallen world. But his realism never becomes the gritty despair so common in the post-modern imagination: the grim and dark meaninglessness glorified in the anti-heroes of today’s movies. No, his deep realism is intended to provide a contrast: glory in the midst of humility. He wishes us to feel the awe of knowing that the glory of heaven was present in the dirt of a manger scene. This birth was normal, in every way, but it was glorious. This scene was humble – forgettable even, by the standards of the world. But it was simultaneously the most important birth ever. Caravaggio has masterfully imagined the truths of the Incarnation.