The adoration of the shepherds

Epitaph for Caspar Niemegk by Lucas Cranach the Younger (1562): “The adoration of the shepherds”

In 1562 Caspar Niemegk died. He was but 45 years old. He left behind his childless wife Anna. She commissioned Lucas Cranach the Younger to paint an epitaph for her husband, which would comfort her by pointing out the true comfort for us and our salvation +  That´s how St.Mary´s (Wittenberg´s City Church) got this illustration of the holy Christmas nativity and we in the Old Latin School have a poster size copy of this master piece. I used it to illustrate our family circular this year 2019 too – See 20th December.

Today – on this 1st Christmas Day in this very high and special Christmas holiday – we had a chance to reflect on this glorious painting during the church sermon. We considered the colors, structures and people depicted. There´s more to it than that, but that´s for later… Now for these three parts and with my own reflections added to the brilliant insights from today´s preacher.

First of all, the colors. Earthy reds dominate, but the heavenly blues come right in. The holy mother of God and pure Virgin – celestial Queen and most blessed amongst women – is gowned in heavenly blue – even if the red gown adorns her near the very center of it all. It´s her child – the only begotten Son of God – Jesus Christ – the little baby in the manger, who´s dominates the focal point and center piece – practically the alter bearing God´s good and perfect gifts for all mankind – the very lamb of God, who bears the sins of the world. He is very God of very God… and a little human baby born of his Virgin mother.  God´s burning love for us poor people on earth, sinners the whole lot of us, is that red hot furnace burning ferociously and most passionately for us and our salvation. The little one – is his powerful packet of love for us – in the form of a little baby. Pure love – God and human. Pure white. Sinless and pure. As he grows up amongst us, he will show us, what the Father is like and what he´s up to for us and what he´s got in store for us – grace, mercy and peace. Just as the angels sang in the beginning. Therefore, “Glory be to God on high, peace on earth and to all people His godly favor and goodwill.” It´s the heavenly revelation, which comes to us in the little baby, but which illuminates the world from the manger. Christ opens up our world for the heavens above. Lifts off the roof – and the invisible heavens become visible. The host of angels appear and declare the glory of the triune God. Our world becomes lighter and brighter, because the light of the world has appeared – IX our God.

Caspar and Anna Niemegk are now separated by his untimely death. 46 is just too young. They are dressed in costly and noble robes, but black and sorrowful. It is their current status. Still, they are both arranged in devote prayer stance at the crib and before the source of their salvation – the truth, the way and the light. He, the only way to the Father and our heavenly homes, which he has prepared for us and all his own.

Joseph is close to Mary, but somewhat at a distance to the child. It is not his, but as the angel Gabriel put it “was conceived from the Holy Spirit”. O delightful miracle and wonder! God himself enters our world to become one of us, so that we would return to him and be his own – always. Forgiven, restored, fulfilled – as was God´s plan from of old. Joseph in fiery, earthy red. He sure has his place to safeguard the mother and child. His – a special calling – different to Mary´s. Completely, but still dictated and scripted by godly wisdom, grace, goodness and mercy. And Joseph – not some cuckooed fool, but rather called, installed and commissioned into this delightful office of godfather, master and caretaker of God´s very only begotten Son. He loves it. He´s all red – and a good example to all fathers here, who by God´s grace have children to take care of – not just as their own, but as God´s very precious gifts to them – to nurture, keep, tend and care as they grow up to God´s glory and a blessing to their fellow men. Joseph not only carries the money bag, but also the apron of the carpenter and worker. It´s labor of its own sort – raising children together with a god-fearing and -loving wife.

The shepherds are a mixed bunch. All clothed in working dress, some more noble in stylish  black, others more in the browns of the manual laborer, but also in reds sticking out here and there. Some have doffed their hats, others are not quite sure, what to do. They´re not used to high courts and affairs. They´re common folk. Sticks and daggers, pipes and beards. They´ve come, because they´ve been invited. Special invitation from on high.  God´s angel called them. How could they resist? So now, they see, what he promised: “You will see a child in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger: Christ – the savior of the world. His name is Jesus, for he will save his people.”

The cow and the donkey – Isaiah 1 – are right there. They belong there too. They know their Lord and master – better than most folks do. Colors of red and grey. Beasts of the field. They too are God´s creation and when he came into his own, they were there to welcome him too. Later, the donkey would carry him to his goal. But that too, is for later and not now. Still, the donkey is ready. Biding his time and calling – to carry his master, when it is time. Outside – far in the fields – we see the lights of heaven shinning on those shepherds there. That´s the heavens opening up – and for all the world to see. The lowly shepherds are first in line. For God comes to seek those, who are far off and outside – to bring them in and right back home into his fold and godly family.

The godly messages of salvation and love are carried by the holy angels on placards of red and glorious print.

The picture is structured into 4 quarters. The bottom half is dominated by the worldly folk – and little boy Jesus at the very center. He joins heaven and earth. In him they become one. Just like Caspar and Anna Niemegk, each in his/her quarter/corner, became one in holy matrimony: What God has joined in unison, let no one pull asunder! Jesus, Mary, Joseph are another unit – at the middle – and the shepherds and the beasts, who/which belong together fill out the upper eighth of the bottom quarters. And that is just the bottom half. The top half has shepherds in the low bottom of the top left hand quarter with angels appearing to them especially out on the field, whereas the rest of the heavenly hosts cover all the top 2 eighths of the picture and even dropping their message into our earthly quarters. They are all over – and at Christmas they become visible by God´s grace to let us know, what good he has in store for us.

Dr. Martin Luther has put that first angelic Christmastide into straight forward German in his wonderful Christmas hymn. We sang it as gospel proclamation in unison and in selected parts – men, women, left and right side – until we all joined together in this good tiding, the angels first brought to the shepherds in Bethlehem – some 2019 years ago:

1. “From heaven above to earth I come
To bear good news to every home;
Glad tidings of great joy I bring,
Whereof I now will say and sing:

2. “To you this night is born a child
Of Mary, chosen virgin mild;
This little child, of lowly birth,
Shall be the joy of all the earth.

3. “This is the Christ, our God and Lord,
Who in all need shall aid afford;
He will Himself your Savior be
From all your sins to set you free.

4. “He will on you the gifts bestow
Prepared by God for all below,
That in His kingdom, bright and fair,
You may with us His glory share.

5. “These are the tokens ye shall mark:
The swaddling-clothes and manger dark;
There ye shall find the Infant laid
By whom the heavens and earth were made.”

6. Now let us all with gladsome cheer
Go with the shepherds and draw near
To see the precious gift of God,
Who hath His own dear Son bestowed.

7. Give heed, my heart, lift up thine eyes!
What is it in yon manger lies?
Who is this child, so young and fair?
The blessed Christ-child lieth there.


8. Welcome to earth, Thou noble Guest,

Through whom the sinful world is blest!
Thou com’st to share my misery;
What thanks shall I return to Thee?

9. Ah, Lord, who hast created all,
How weak art Thou, how poor and small,
That Thou dost choose Thine infant bed
Where humble cattle lately fed!

10. Were earth a thousand times as fair,
Beset with gold and jewels rare,
It yet were far too poor to be
A narrow cradle, Lord, for Thee.

11. For velvets soft and silken stuff
Thou hast but hay and straw so rough,
Whereon Thou, King, so rich and great,
As ’twere Thy heaven, art throned in state.

12. And thus, dear Lord, it pleaseth Thee
To make this truth quite plain to me,
That all the world’s wealth, honor, might,
Are naught and worthless in Thy sight.

13. Ah, dearest Jesus, holy Child,
Make Thee a bed, soft, undefiled,
Within my heart, that it may be
A quiet chamber kept for Thee.

14. My heart for very joy doth leap,
My lips no more can silence keep;
I, too, must sing with joyful tongue
That sweetest ancient cradle-song:

15. Glory to God in highest heaven,
Who unto us His Son hath given!
While angels sing with pious mirth
A glad new year to all the earth.

The Lutheran Hymnal
Hymn #85 Text: Luke 2: 1-18 author: Martin Luther, 1535
Tune: „Vom Himmel hoch, da komm ich her…“ translated by: Catherine Winkworth, 1855, alt. 1st published in: “Geistliche Lieder” Leipzig, 1539

About Wilhelm Weber

Pastor at the Old Latin School in the Lutherstadt Wittenberg
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