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Giotto’s Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds

John 1.10-18

In the week before Christmas the BBC broadcast a modern version of The Nativity which attempted to retell the story with as much psychological realism as possible. So, for instance, viewers saw how Mary, and Joseph especially, struggled with their feelings.

But telling the story of Jesus with psychological realism is not a new idea. It has a long tradition going back seven hundred years to the time of the Italian artist Giotto di Bondone. This nativity scene was painted in a church in Padua in about 1305. Much imitated it is one of the first attempts at psychological realism in Christian art. And what a wonderful first attempt it is - a work of genius, in fact!

Whereas previously Mary and the Baby Jesus had been depicted facing outwards, or looking at their visitors, with beatific expressions fixed on their faces, Giotto dares to show them staring intently into one another’s eyes, bonding like any mother and newborn baby. Joseph, in contrast, is not looking on with quiet approval and safeguarding mother and child. He’s a middle aged man, perhaps even an elderly one, and he’s clearly exhausted. Slouched in the foreground, he has drifted off to sleep. Like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday he is missing out on a crucial moment in Jesus’ life.

The donkey is staring intently at Jesus but it’s not quite so obvious what the ox is doing. Some observers think the ox has fixed it’s gaze on Jesus too, but to my way of thinking the ox wears a typically vacant expression, as if Giotto is saying, ‘It might understand what’s happening, or again it might not!’ And with the silly sheep, there’s no doubt at all. They’re looking this way and that, as if they have no idea whether it’s Christmas or Easter!

Notice that Joseph and Mary are quite smartly dressed. These aren’t impoverished travellers left with no where to rest their heads. Here we see a decidedly middle class couple. Mary is lying on a four poster bed covered with a richly embroidered quilt or throw! And a midwife or servant is supporting the baby for her. She doesn’t have to cradle him herself, although - tired though she is - she can’t resist reaching out to touch him.

Giotto is reminding us here that Jesus was born into quite a well-to-do family. His father was a craftsman and you can imagine what Joseph’s call-out charge would be if you found yourself in need of his help! Interestingly, instead of exaggerating the poverty of Jesus’ birth, Giotto perhaps exaggerates his family’s wealth.

If the setting is a stable, and the presence of the animals suggests that it is at least that part of the house where they are usually bedded down for the night, someone has gone to the trouble of carrying a very nice bed into it for Mary to lie on. The manger is just an accessory - somewhere conveniently soft and warm where Jesus can be laid down to sleep when he or his mother get tired.

Perhaps the shepherds are the biggest surprise of all. Their clothes are much more basic than those of Mary and Joseph, and that’s only to be expected because shepherding was a fairly basic job - something which younger sons had to do if they didn’t inherit any land. But, although the picture is sometimes called ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’, the surprise is that they’re not actually looking at Jesus or adoring him at all. They’re still gazing at the angels, who are explaining to them what the tableau really means. Giotto’s message would seem to be that this may look like an ordinary birth, into a fairly average if rather prosperous family, but it’s shown to be extraordinary by the attendance of the angels.

One of the most puzzling things for the first Christians was that when God came into the world he had created, no one recognised him. Even his own chosen people, who had been prepared for his coming for centuries, did not welcome Jesus or appreciate who he really was. Giotto seems to be saying that the birth of Jesus was such a mundane event, and the behaviour of the holy family was so normal, that it’s no wonder it was hard to interpret.

And yet, says John, faith is the key that can unlock the true meaning of Christmas. To those who are willing to accept him, the dear Christ enters in and all the kindness and the truth of God then become available to us.


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