And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in clothes and lying in a manger."
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests."
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about."
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
Luke 2:8-16, New International Version of the Bible
So goes the story of the adoration of the shepherds that has been told pictorially by artists beginning in the Byzantine era. It was an especially popular subject in Renaissance and Baroque art.
Now the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota has its own Adoration of the Shepherds by Otto van Veen. The painting was purchased by the museum in January at a sale at Christie's, a New York auction house, for $56,250, according to the Christie's website. (Museums generally decline to release purchase prices.)
Van Veen (1556-1629) was a successful and admired Flemish artist and scholar during his career and his reputation has remained solid over time. But his greatest claim to fame is as the teacher for several years of the great Baroque artist Peter Paul Rubens.
So this painting is an especially meaningful addition to the Ringling's permanent collection, which has one of the best and biggest groups of works by Rubens in the United States.
Van Veen adds a lot of personality to the bare-bones biblical narrative. The surface is sumptuously stuffed with heavenly and earthly casts. A serene Mary centers the scene, surrounded by shepherds and overseen by an angelic host, including an uncharacteristically brawny angel. The shepherds are reverential except for one on the left who looks away with a mischievous grin while embracing a shepherdess. The bound lamb in the foreground probably represents Christ's later sacrifice. Van Veen used bright colors and a dramatic contrast of light and dark. He used copper as the support (the surface on which paint is applied), which was, along with wood, the most common support material until the 17th century, when linen became popular. The painting measures about 34 by 29 inches.
The public will have to wait for sometime in June to see Adoration of the Shepherds because it needs some conservation work. When that's finished, it will be installed in a gallery next to some of the museum's Rubens paintings.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8293.