THE CHRISTMAS CANVAS: ‘The Annunciation to the Shepherds’ by Joachim Wtewael
The first Noel, the angels did say
Was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay
In fields where they lay a keeping their sheep
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel!
The beautiful lyrics of this Christmas carol breathe life and colour through today’s Christmas Canvas.
As night dawned hundreds of sheep that grazed the hilly slopes of Bethlehem fell quiet, except for an occasional bleat. The stars twinkled brightly in the sky. The shepherds lay down as usual taking turns to watch their flock. A few, tired at the hustle of the day, instantly fell asleep. The shepherdess talked faintly to each other. A little boy held his beloved lamb close to his heart, his soft voice soothing the animal. The cow soon dozed off. The watch dogs in alertness and faithfulness attempted to keep awake. It was a night like every other night for the Shepherds of Bethlehem.
As they tugged their heavy cloaks to protect themselves from the whistling wind, they realised that the air was getting gusty. The fire soon died out but their eyes were prepared for darkness. As the little boy scanned the hills for wolves and thieves, he thought he heard a melodious sound. He brushed it off imagining it to be a mid-night dream. But his dream got real. That night he lived his dream.
The melodious sound grew louder. It was the most beautiful choir he had ever heard. Soon the others began waking up in wonder and awe. They looked around for the source of the soulful music. Suddenly the heavens opened through a heart – shaped cloud and a bright light shone from above. The illuminated intensity of the divine radiance almost blinded them. Some lifted their faces and hands to heaven. The others shielded themselves from the astonishing glory in fear.
The animals fixed their gaze upwards as the heavenly messengers descended downwards. Heaven had invaded the earth. An angelic figure heralding a scroll echoed, ‘Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord.’ Then the multitude of angels in celestial blissful chorus began praising God, ‘’Noel, Noel, Born is the King of Israel!’
The Shepherds couldn’t believe their eyes. They were sacredly stumped. As the vision faded, they stood there looking at each other in awe, in divine wonder. Tears streamed down their face as they hugged and greeted each other with joy. For unto a poor, humble, open shepherd was first revealed the greatness of God’s Glory.
Joachim Wtewael charges up this narrative through symbols. The olive trees surrounding the campus announce the message of peace and victory. The greenery hails spring. The canines on the left and the right in the foreground symbolize faithfulness and wakefulness. The strawberry leaves and the reeds that grow close to the ground emulate humility while the stones spell sincerity and strength.
The basket of fruits at our left signifies an abundance of God’s providence. A little pear tucked under the arm of the Shepherd signifies Divine love. The dilapidated structure on our right signifies brokenness and poverty. It is also a symbol of openness and faith. As the young shepherdess shields her eyes she reveals the simplicity of the shepherds who live by faith and not by sight. Thus Wtewael uses mannerism to its ultimate to drive home a dynamic living message.
That night heaven lay in the shepherds’ heart. They couldn’t stop thanking and praising God. They had found their spotless Lamb, born to die for the salvation of mankind. Their lives found purpose and their soul joy. For that night, the Shepherds became sheep and the Lamb of God their Shepherd!
Joynel Fernandes- Asst. Director- Archdiocesan Heritage Museum, Goregaon, Mumbai
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday between 9am to 5pm. For a guided tour please contact: 022 – 29271557