Of all the medieval images associated with the Christmas story, surely most familiar is that of the Nativity, which depicts the Christ child in the lowly stable of his birth, almost always attended by the Virgin Mary, her husband Joseph, and the ubiquitous ox and ass. Medieval nativity scenes often included other onlookers as well, from the shepherds and magi to whom angels announced Jesus’ birth to the midwives who, in some accounts, assisted at it. Of all these figures, few have a longer or more engaging history than the shepherds, with whose homespun character and simple faith many ordinary medieval Christians could identify.
The shepherds themselves have biblical origins: Luke 2:8-20 describes them receiving news of Christ’s birth from a host of angels, then rushing to the stable to see the child for themselves. The scene of the angelic annunciation to the shepherds is sometimes presented adjacent to or in the background of the Nativity, and in the very late Middle Ages, under the influence of Franciscan piety, it was also depicted as an independent scene. However, from the beginnings of Christian art, the shepherds were also frequent onlookers at the Nativity itself. By the fourth century, Roman and Gallic sarcophagi had begun to include one or two shepherds standing beside the manger, often raising a hand in recognition of Jesus’ divinity; middle Byzantine mosaics often cast the shepherds as a trio to balance the three magi who also attended the child. Such pairings were encouraged by medieval texts that presented the shepherds as symbolizing the Jewish tradition from which Christianity had sprung and the magi as representing those pagans who converted to the faith. Alternatively, the magi and shepherds were sometimes presented as demonstrating Christ’s recognition by all walks of life, a universalistic message sometimes developed further in the portrayal of both groups as men of varying ages and even ethnicities.
Late medieval pietistic trends, which promoted the idea that the poorest of men had been the first to receive news of Christ’s birth as confirmation of the value of humility and simplicity, encouraged fourteenth- and fifteenth-century artists to elaborate their images of the shepherds. They often are shown as rough-hewn peasant types—sometimes even including a shepherdess—who offer the child simple, heartfelt gifts, such as a lamb, a flute, flowers or, more unusually, a basket of eggs. The appeal of these humane, familiar figures still resonates in many a Christmas sermon as well as Christmas carols, from the traditional Austrian “Shepherd’s Carol” to the 1941 pop hit “The Little Drummer Boy.”
Shepherds are noted in over 650 records of the Nativity in the online database of the Index of Christian Art; many more can be found in the card files. Media include sculpture, gold glass, manuscripts, enamel, mosaic, fresco, and painting. We wish all our friends who celebrate Christmas a joyous and peaceful holiday.
Welcome to the new website of the Index of Christian Art. Our updated and more user-friendly design preserves many of the things researchers have counted on finding here: information about our history, holdings, and hours; additional image resources; news about events and publications, including the annual journal Studies in Iconography; and a link to our online database. However, it now also includes updated information about our staff and their projects, new information about our resources and services, and periodic blog posts on topics of interest to a range of medievalist researchers.
Our website redesign, created by our Technology Manager Jon Niola with content input from several of our research staff, represents only one of several initiatives under way at the Index this year. The most important to external researchers will be a total revamp of our venerable online database to allow for a friendlier design, more flexible, intuitive searches, and easier access to information and images. We hope to put this into place in time for the Index’s centennial in 2017. Other initiatives include the inauguration of Index Workshops, in which faculty and students in the department of Art & Archaeology at Princeton can join with Index and area scholars to workshop papers and publications in progress, and the revival of the well-known Index Conference Series, which reboots on April 29 with a one-day conference titled “Plus Ça Change? The Lives and Afterlives of Medieval Iconography.”
We would like to think that our technological updates would please St. Isidore of Seville (ca. 560-636), who in 1997 was nominated by Pope John Paul II to become patron saint of the Internet. Bishop of Seville for over thirty years, the learned Isidore richly deserves the honor: his most famous work, the 20-volume Etymologiae, attempted to summarize all human knowledge in the manner of Classical scholars. Its scope ranges from theology and the liberal arts to medicine, animals, and daily life, offering the reader a plethora of surprising and sometimes colorful details about such topics as the causes of an eclipse, the behavior of ants, and the names of various women’s garments. Its wide use and continued importance throughout the Middle Ages can be judged by its countless citations (dare we call them re-tweets?) in works by medieval authors, including such luminaries as Dante, Chaucer, Bocaccio, and Petrarch. Isidore of Seville is represented by 28 records in the Index, both in the database and physical card file; he is often shown writing busily at a lectern, as in the late twelfth-century Aberdeen Bestiary (Aberdeen University Library, MS. 24, fol. 81r). Further subject references to Isidore can be found under, “Clergy, Bishop: Isidore of Seville” and “Scribe, Male: Isidore of Seville.”