The Adoration of the Shepherds is a great painting – but it belongs in a church, not a gallery

Detail from 'The Adoration of the Shepherds' by Guido Reni (Wikimedia)

Even a casual visitor to the National Gallery cannot help but be struck by this lovely picture, Guido Reni’s Adoration of the Shepherds, especially at this time of year.

Guido has been out of fashion for a very long time. He was a native of Bologna, which, incidentally, has a large collection of his works, and did most of his work in the Papal States and Rome itself, as well as in Naples. As you would expect, his work is mainly religious, with a few excursions into mythology. His religious work has been dismissed as the typical Counter-Reformation production at the service of the Church, lacking the true creative spark. I remember my guidebook to Bologna informing me that art cannot flourish under a totalitarian dictatorship such as that of the Papacy: a judgement that reflects a poor knowledge both of history and of Catholicism. Besides, wasn’t Michelangelo himself under the patronage of the Papacy? Did that blunt his creative vigour? Is Rome a cultural and artistic desert? In fact, as Guido shows, art and religion go very well together, and produce great works like this one.

The Gallery’s online blurb tells us that The Adoration of the Shepherds is one of two treatments of the subject by Guido and that the other “remains in situ” in the Charterhouse of Naples, one of the great baroque buildings of Italy. This painting, then, has lost its true setting, for it was never intended to hang in a gallery, but is in fact either an altarpiece, meant to be the focal point of a church, hanging above the altar, or possibly meant to decorate a sacristy or an otherwise plain wall in a church. Context determines meaning. This picture of the Incarnate Christ is meant to hang in the sacred space where the Incarnation is most easily appreciated and realised today, that is, in a church. Moreover, this picture of the Adoration is meant to hang where Christ is still adored today, in a church, in the presence of the Blessed Sacrament.

The Adoration of the Shepherds is a painting that shows a deep theological understanding. Christ is at its centre and He is the source of the picture’s light; His light illuminates the shepherds and Mary and Joseph and the angels above. Thus Guido conveys in pictorial form what Christ Himself tells us: “I am the light of the world.” The painting also calls to mind the words of Saint John: “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it” (John 1:5).

It is sometimes said that the distinguishing feature of baroque art is its sense of movement. Here we see the heads of all the figures bending towards Christ, craning forward to look at Him. Even the ox and the ass are captivated by the sight of the Child. But this movement is not bound by the confines of the frame; the spectator too is bidden to move his or her heart towards Christ the Lord, the babe of Bethlehem. The Adoration of the Shepherds is complemented and fulfilled by the adoration of the viewer: the hearts of then and the hearts of now share in the same spontaneous movement of love. The viewer is not simply called to admire the picture; the viewer is called to partake in an act of worship.

The picture now has to compete with all the other great works hanging in Room 30 of the gallery. Thanks to its size and the drama it conveys, it manages rather well. But once it didn’t have to compete at all: as a work in a church, it pointed in the same direction to every other piece of the church’s furnishings, saying “Come and worship.”

To some of the crowds that pass through the National Gallery, this picture might seem too much like a Christmas card, and divorced from its original setting, and deprived of its theological import, that is what it would be. But even to look at it for a moment, is to feel, surely, the first stirrings of the call to faith. Who is this Child who is the object of so much loving attention? And who is this Child, who bestows on those who look at Him the gift of celestial light?

As I remarked when discussing the Wilton Diptych, the National Gallery is a place where we can experience intimations of faith. This painting by Guido is a good place to start if we want to renew our sense of wonder at the Incarnation of Christ. There are others too, which I shall save for later articles.