A SHEPHERD FOR A WHILE By R. Herbert, January 7, 2014.
When a work of art enables us to experience something of the
past which could never now be duplicated, it transcends Plato’s idea that “art is
a reflection of life” and takes us to a place we could not otherwise know, a
place reserved for those who were there, who saw, heard and felt what we can
only try to imagine.
I think this is the effect of Daniel Bonnell’s painting Seeing
Shepherds which tells
the story of the angelic annunciation given to the shepherds who watched over
their flocks during the starlit Nativity. The biblical account, found in the
second chapter of the Gospel of Luke, omits many details and sketches only the
salient lines, as it must; but here the artist fills in the verbal sketch with the colors,
textures and details he has visualized – creating for us not a report, but a virtual
memory of the wonder of the scene.
The first thing we notice about this work is, of course, the
host of angels stretching across the evening sky, bisecting the darkness in a
radiant arc which carries our eyes deep within the composition. The angelic arc is echoed in the paths of stars
which wheel around the upper sky, circling a heaven of midnight, cobalt, and
ultramarine. Below the living arc, the
lower sky is infused with violet, indigo and burning reds which light the swirling clouds as
they reach across the scene, roiling the
horizon and melting into the slopes of the dry Judean hills.
The teeming angelic band touches heaven and earth, uniting
them visually and in their purpose as heralds of God born as man. In appearance,
the angels swarm like an enormous flight of birds covering the sky, but these
beings do not blot out the light of the stars – rather they radiate light which
fills the scene and is reflected in the warm tones of the foreground with
its shepherds and flocks of sheep.
As though an audience, the flocks are unmoving and attentive
- without comprehension of the scene before them, yet held in its grasp. It would be easy to allegorize the flocks. Dark sheep which stand in the near foreground, at a
distance from the host, seem like the remote religious leaders of the day,
while closer to the host light-bathed sheep mill around the shepherds like the
masses that would later crowd around John, the Baptist, and the One that he
and the heavenly hosts announced.
The shepherds themselves, with arms outstretched in reverent
wonder, stand in awe before the luminous host, yet they exhibit no sense of
dread at the beings before them – they are simply awestruck in the deepest sense
of the word. They stand only a short
distance below the nearest angels and remind us of David’s words that “You have
made man a little lower than the angels,” and yet the scene shows powerfully what
a great gulf lies within that short distance.
Enraptured, the shepherds receive the good news of the Messiah who comes now as the good shepherd – one of their own – but the message
transcends their homely imaginations as much as it does ours: “… a multitude of the heavenly host praising God
and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with
whom he is pleased!’” (Luke 2:13-14). Nothing is said in the biblical account of
music or singing, yet surely one angel could deliver a simple spoken message as
well as a legion of them, and we can only presume, as tradition has, that the
heavenly host sang out their message in perfect unison.
We do not know if Luke records the only words of the
heavenly oratorio, but if there was more than the few words he recorded, we
might suspect its gist in the words of David, the shepherd who spoke so often
of the Messiah to come, and who wrote:
“Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise
him in the heights above. Praise him,
all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly hosts… all you shining stars” (Psalms 148:1-2 ).
We may not have the libretto, but the magnificence of the host
portrayed by Bonnell helps us realize
the superlative nature of the angels’ words in a choral masterpiece worthy of
the annunciation they make, worthy of the cosmic stage of earth and starlit sky on
which it is performed.
Looking at the painted scene, I almost feel the harmonies of the divine voices surging
through the depths of the night sky. The
artist’s vision transcends the meager word-bound scene produced by my own
imagination, and I see the wonder of the angelic hosts with the eyes of a
shepherd, awestruck and dazed.
The biblical account does not tell us how long
the heavenly oratorio lasted, but however long it was, as I immerse myself in this
painting I am one of the shepherds for that while, and the message comes not
only to them, but also to me.