Thursday, 19 December 2013

From the Archives: Doubt and Faith: Caravaggio's 'Adoration of the Shepherds'

by Tom McCarthy

The Italian Renaissance has given us its familiar icon of the Nativity of Christ. Mary and Joseph kneel in radiant light before the Christ Child. Shepherds approach bearing gifts, a lamb, a dove, a basket of eggs. Above the stable in a blaze of supernatural light angels dance and sing. From Hugo van der Goes, whose Adoration caused a sensation when it arrived in Florence in 1485, to Ghirlandaio (1487), to Botticelli (1500), to Correggio (1530), we see this familiar iconography. Moreover, each of these great artists has a theological intent.
With van der Goes, Mary and Joseph and eighteen other figures, angelic and human, clad in courtly elegance, seem to contemplate the sadness of the future – the death of Christ. Ghirlandaio, who saw van der Goes as an inspiration, has the Infant lying in front of a Roman sarcophagus with a Latin motto: “...the urn that conceals me will bring forth a god” – the resurrection of Christ. Botticelli’s Mystic Nativity has twelve colourful angels dancing in the sky and a trinity of angels on the roof of the stable. Another angel is leading three kings to adore, another leads three shepherds; at the picture plane, three angels embrace three human beings, as devils disappear into crevices in the earth – the theology of salvation. In Correggio’s Adoration, sometimes called Holy Night , the light source is the Infant Christ, whose light irradiates his smiling mother and dazzles an attendant nurse – “lumen Christi”.
In the centre of each of these masterpieces there is the Infant Jesus, with Mary and Joseph devoutly kneeling. Angels attend – a handful in Correggio, fourteen in Ghirlandaio, a legion in Botticelli. Each painting underlines an article of belief and appeals to the intellect, to reason.
With Caravaggio’s Adoration of the Shepherds, however, the traditional joyful topic of Christ’s Nativity takes on a sombre, sorrowful air. Giovanni Bellori, a contemporary and later biographer wrote of him: "The old painters, brought up in the tradition, were appalled... (There is) no decorum, no artistic sense. He painted all the figures in one and the same light and plane without any perspective”.
It was painted in Messina between 1608-9 for the Church of Santa Maria degli Angeli. The first sign of its breaking with tradition is that, in this Church of the Angels, there are no angels, there is no heavenly light. Then, mother and child are not the centre of the composition. Instead in a wooden barn a donkey and ox stand patiently in the background. Off-centre, Mary, small and frail, lies on the earth, slumped, exhausted. The baby tugs at her face; she looks down and beyond him to stray straws glinting on the floor. Roberto Longhi, a twentieth-century champion of Caravaggio, says of Adoration:
He succeeded in completing for the Capuchins in Messina the exquisitely humble Manger Scene with Shepherds. ... The Madonna looks lost, holding the tiny child before the apprehensive gaze of the shepherds, as stolid as if cast in bronze. She is lying on a litter of prickly straw, hemmed in by animals as immobile as objects, while the merest glimmer of light seems to enter in, together with the surge of a distant sea. Set down in front of us, a sort of ‘peasant still life’ – napkin, loaf and carpenter’s plane in three tones, white, brown and black – is reduced to a forlorn quintessence”.
The Capuchins were and are Franciscan Friars whose faith is that Christ was born for the poor – the bare feet of Mary, Joseph and a shepherd attest to this. This painting exemplifies a faith that God became man as one of the poor, an ideal utterly different to that of van der Goes, or Ghirlandaio, or Botticelli or even Correggio. Mother and child exemplify humility as they lie on the earth, “humus”. Some years before Caravaggio came to Messina, himself a fugitive from the authorities in Rome and in Malta, a Capuchin preacher, imagining in a meditation Christ speaking, said: “...for see in how great a need of human help I was born, with no shelter, no bed, no fire and no nurse to aid my mother”.
The composition of the painting emphasises the artist’s purpose. There is a simplicity about the geometry: a diagonal drawn down by the descending heads divides the painting into two triangles. The superior one, all dark in brown and black, seems to press down on the triangle of the figures, in red and brown and grey, a limited and unostentatious palette, the dark making the colours bright. The superior triangle finds an echo in the dark rectangle at the bottom of the picture and just as the light picks out the donkey’s nose at the top, it sets alight the glittering straws, the only riches in the composition, scattered on the floor below.
An astonishing detail, so utterly alien to the Renaissance painters, isolates the mother. She is lying on a rough, black blanket, the colour field so densely black it reminds me of Rothko, as does her dress, red without any tonal variations. Caravaggio’s latest biographer, Andrew Graham- Dixon, says of this painting:
She is a refugee mother, utterly alone in the dark with her defenceless child”.
The black blanket does this.
You might read somewhere that in the image of the mother lying on the ground Caravaggio was reaching back to earlier masters – for example, to Giotto in his Nativity in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. Giotto’s Madonna, however, is richly clad in precious ultramarine and gold and reaches eagerly across for the Infant handed to her by a nurse. A joyous image.
In the earlier Renaissance paintings, the light source is either heavenly (as in Botticelli and Ghirlandaio) or supernatural from the Infant Christ (as in van der Goes and Correggio). No such supernatural intervention intrudes in Caravaggio’s Adoration. What little light there is comes from the left and the bottom left, from the earth, and its effect is surprising. Just as the diagonal of the descending heads emphasises the mother’s and the child’s head, so the light travelling up along that line, picks out first the basket of carpenter’s tools, saw, adze and set square: Joseph, the journeyman carpenter, had not left his craft behind. In the basket, too, there is food, a roughly baked loaf – just that, a loaf of bread. The light picks out the white napkin in the basket and notice how the folds of napkin find a reflection in the folds of the infant’s swaddling clothes. “Refugee mother”, as Graham-Dixon says , but refugee father, too, refugee child.
Caravaggio’s Adoration shatters the Renaissance icon and presents itself to us as anti-icon. It has no theology, either, no appeal to the mind, but to the heart, to the emotions. There is desolate humanity here, though, and doubt and faith: “The picture is almost unbearable”. (Graham-Dixon)

This article was originally published in the Icon issue of Portsmouth Point, in December 2012.

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