By Robert Schindler, PhD, The Fariss Gambrill Lynn and Henry Sharpe Lynn Curator of European Art
According to the Christian Bible, shortly after Jesus was born, his birth was announced to shepherds by an angel, and they came to bear witness. This scene is commonly represented in art but uncommon in the work of Dutch artist Bartholomeus Breenbergh, who specialized in landscapes and painted very few religious scenes. Breenbergh spent his formative years in Italy, where he belonged to a group of Dutch and German expats called the Schildersbent (“painters’ clique”). He returned to the Netherlands in the early 1630s to live and work in Amsterdam.
The BMA’s painting is one of these rare religious works, but the beautiful handling of light in this painting still draws on his experience of sun-bathed Italian landscapes. The scene in the foreground is illuminated by a divine light radiating from Jesus. It variously highlights the figures– first and foremost Mary on the left–but also the three shepherds on the right, whose reactions range from ignorance to delight to devotion.
The Annunciation to the Shepherds is a distinct subject in Christian art but is sometimes included with the Adoration. In the background of this painting, barely visible, an angel is descending through a ray of light falling through the clouds to announce the birth of Christ to a group of shepherds tending their sheep. Celebrations of the birth of Jesus at Christmas include remembrance of the Annunciation to the shepherds. For instance, several well-known Christmas carols mention this episode, such as O Come, All Ye Faithful: See how the shepherds, Summoned to His cradle, Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze; We too will thither bend our joyful footsteps.