The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1609 by Caravaggio

In The Adoration of the Shepherds, the scene is another dark interior, with a beam of light cutting across from the left, causing the figures to emerge from the general obscurity. The composition is ingenious but unobtrusive. Its effect is of restraint, tranquility, and calm immutability.

Doctrinal implications are understated. Perhaps by seating the Madonna on the ground Caravaggio was deliberately recalling the late medieval play on the Latin words "humilitas" (humility) and "humus" (earth). But the Madonna's humility speaks for itself. She is no queen of heaven, but a simple healthy young woman of the people, cuddling her baby like any other mother. Nor does anything suggest the shepherds' historical significance as the first men to recognize Christ. Only the young man in the center makes a prayerful gesture and even that is equivocal. They may be surprised to find this mother and her beautiful newborn child in this shack, but their response is to admire them rather than to venerate the Virgin and worship Christ.

No cloud of angels bursts in, no great blaze of light disturbs the tranquility, and accessories are meager and plain. The basket containing the Holy Family's simple travel necessities - a loaf of bread, a few pieces of cloth, and Joseph's carpenter's tools - is unpretentious, and its sparseness emphasizes the family's simplicity and poverty. Some theological significance might lie concealed within the other accessories, but they appear primarily as still-life details. The building is a roughly built farm shed, evidently not intended for human habitation. The traditional ox and ass seem to belong in this barn, placidly feeding from the manger.

Nonetheless, the subject, even without the halos marking Mary and Joseph, is unmistakable. Though unadorned, it lacks none of its essential earthly components. Caravaggio deliberately avoided any eloquence within it, as contradicting the homespun authenticity of the wonder at the miracle of birth. The dignity that he has recognized in these simple people in this drab setting conveys his sense of their worth, not primarily as participants in this central Christian event but as universal goodhearted common folk.