December 18th 2021
“Adoration of the Shepherds”, 1578/81, Tintoretto, Scoula Grande di San Rocco, Venice.
Two women gaze upon the child from the opposite side of a hayloft. Mary raises a cloth so that they can see his face. Unusually for this scene, the shepherds do not have a clear view of the child. Even though an angel is just visible through the rafters, this farmyard barn looks entirely natural. In fact, it is very carefully constructed. Luke tells us that the shepherds came by night, but Tintoretto gives us enough light to see all the details. Actually, each is a visible sign of what is as yet unseen. For example, the ox and the ass symbolise Christ’s humility, and also, following Isaiah 1:3, they are symbols of faith in Christ. Above the scene the rafters make the shape of a cross, while the fowl and the eggs being offered by the shepherd refer to the resurrection. The peacock might look out of place, but it was believed that peacock’s flesh did not decay and so it came to symbolise immortality. The peacock, although exotic, is there to tell us that this child will conquer death, and promises us that we in our mortal flesh will know the glory of the resurrection. In the shepherds’ company is a woman who is tilting a mirror in the direction of the child, as if trying to see him. Perhaps, she can see him, but only in the glass dimly. By putting the shepherds in the foreground with their backs turned to us, Tintoretto places us beside them. We do not see the child clearly yet as the women do above. But we do see clearly before us so many reminders that speak of the promise that one day we shall see him face to face. Against the back wall, there is even a rickety ladder!