This is a painting full of contrasts: obscurity and luminosity, mundane beside magnificent, the transitory against the eternal, all crammed into 160x196cm of oil on panel. This is the work of Dutch artist, Govert Flinck, painted in 1639.
For me, the angel is the clear focal point but there are three other little epicentres placed evenly around the panel. The palm tree is another, down whose trunk we are guided to the four shepherds bottom right, then the cow on the left. It is as though the artist has divided the painting into four parts, heaven, nature, man and beast, as though showing that the newborn infant has dominion over all of these.
He also juxtaposes their reaction to the event. It seems that all the animals, with the exception of the cow, are quite relaxed, as if they recognise, and are at ease in, the presence of their Maker. The humans, on the other hand, with the exception of the fellow at the front who is still asleep, seem startled. Hardly surprising, though, if you imagine how you might feel at being woken from an evening’s forty winks to stadium lights beaming down on you. I think that these dichotomies serve to emphasise what Christ left behind to live among, leaving the radiance and splendour of Heaven to descend to the darkness and poverty of humankind.
On closer examination, there are more contrasts within each little area. Heaven, whilst bursting open in majesty, retains a serenity, through the authoritative but relaxed posture of the angel, his benign smile and the playfulness of the cherubim surrounding him. One little chap even seems to have dozed off and, if he’s not careful, will find himself slipping off his vaporous pillow. In the animal corner (if that doesn’t sound too like something from Cbeebies), there is a single human, who looks like the only female in the painting. The shepherds embody shabbiness and lethargy, yet are stricken with fear and alarm. Even there, we find another sleeper, oblivious to all the excitement around him. In amongst the otherwise European fauna, Flinck has planted a token palm, disproportionate as it may be, a being from another world, an outsider.
Perhaps the tree is a symbol of Christ’s coming into the world and how He was treated, even “in his own country, among his own kin and in his own house”. Or is it a commentary on not being afraid to go against the grain and stand up for one’s beliefs? Could it even be an ideal, to which mankind should aspire? It seems to form some kind of link between the two corners of the painting, being rooted in the ground but reaching towards higher things.
The lazy cherub is perhaps a warning against being so comfortable in a situation that we become complacent and could head towards oblivion if we are not careful. The sleeping shepherd is the victim of a very common human complaint. Even with an all-star cast, complete with neon flashing lights and doubtless a score to make Elmer Bernstein faint, we can be so caught up in daily life and material matters that we completely miss even the most obvious and amazing opportunities. Which brings us at last to the lone shepherdess, with her illuminated staff pointing the viewer up towards the focus of Heaven. Could she perhaps suggest that solitude, despite all the bad press it gets in our social world, both physical and virtual, is an essential part of finding God?
As well as highlighting the stark contrasts between heaven and earth, I believe that the painter is also inviting us to think about the little contrasts in our everyday life, asking us not to file ourselves away as one personality or another but rather to identify aspects of each of them. The contrasts become complimentary, coming together to create a whole. In which corner would we like to put ourselves? When do we find ourselves there and what can allow us access to its precincts? What causes us to fall into the traps and how can we avoid them? I’ll not say which character I am most often in the position of but I think a celestial alarm clock would be a suitable Christmas present.