|'And Lo, the Angel of the Lord Came Upon Them' John Crompton|
The sheep are a vital part to a nativity so I was pleased to see that they take quite a starring role in this lovely image. The Angels are descending to impart glad tidings to some unimpressed looking sheep, who are not seized by dread of any sort at the sight of this heavenly host. There appear to be no shepherds in evidence, but I found that they were just off camera, as it were. This was intended as part of a greater work, a diptych or a larger canvas, but maybe we are the shepherds, watching the angels descend. Or maybe something else…
|'And the Glory of the Lord Shone Round Above Them, and They were Some Afraid' (or the other bit, as it is known)|
|Strayed Sheep (1852) W Holman Hunt|
Holman Hunt did a nice sheep. In Strayed Sheep, he showed some pretty baa-lambs going astray without their shepherd, a metaphor for the human condition, wandering off the path without a good spiritual guide. Maybe here too the sheep are metaphoric, they are us receiving the angel’s news. The sheep are both the sheep and shepherds as one, a single entity, because after all, the shepherd is merely one of God’s flock, if you follow that extension.
Look again at the disinterest of the sheep in the face of such a miraculous arrival, they look completely unmoved, almost unnoticing. If the sheep are us, is Crompton saying that modern man would not know the arrival of the Son of God if it was trumpeted by a bevy of angels from high? Would we remain indifferent, and if so why? Maybe the sheep aren't paying attention because they feel it doesn't concern them, there is nothing in the birth of the Son of God for them, so is Crompton saying that his contemporaries have the same problem with religion?
I always thought that the Victorians were religious types, hence the fuss over Darwin, but the drop off in church attendance that followed the carnage of the First World War did not come out of nowhere. Many factors of Victorian society, migration from countryside to city, the diversity of nonconformism, industrialisation, all encouraged people away from the established church, and possibly caused some to raise questions about the place of day to day religion and ‘special occasion’ religion among the common man. The Victorians were the first people to exploit the commercial potential of Christmas, and drew the focus of the celebrations away from Jesus to eating, drinking and being merry.
Maybe that’s the reason that all crib scenes come with a sheep, because that’s us, we should never forget that people are central to religion. Or maybe it’s because they are quite easy to model out of plastic, unlike a cow, cows look quite tricky. And never leave a child in charge of setting up a crib scene - last year a zebra turned up on a tractor.
I’m not sure what that would be a metaphor for…