Saturday, 8 December 2012

8th December - 'And Lo, the Angel of the Lord Came Upon Them'

Mr Walker once told me that his starring part in the school nativity was as a sheep.  I made the dizzy heights of Angel Gabriel, but then was back down the next year as an inn keeper, and not the good one.  I got to wear a kaftan and say there was no room.  No wonder I was never invited to join RADA. 

'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…


  1. That stretch of coast near Hastings is pretty much the same now, but with different sheep. There's a political aspect to this, too, as well as a spiritual one, which is why the sheep are at Hastings and undefended from the wicked French.

    Lovely angels at the top, and you're absolutely right. The sheep are never impressed.

  2. When little, I got told I was going to be the star in the nativity. I got all excited about being Mary... I ended up sitting on top of the "stable" in star costume. I didn't get any lines. All I did was sit. And fall off the back of the stable causing a distraction. Ooops.

    On a not-silly level, I think the sheep metaphor is interesting. I know it is probably partly a product of the time-scale of the Nativity story being portrayed as "all at once" (I figure that the angels announcing things during lambing around March would make sense if it then took nine months to get around to a birth in mid December, and therefore the lambs would be a lot bigger by the time it got to giving them as gifts, rather than as cute fluffy very young lambs.)

  3. Lily gets to be a turkey seller on a market this year in the school play. It isn't a straight forward nativity, it has some sort of time travelling jigsaw in it. Or something.

    I hadn't considered the weirdness of lambs in December, but it would be up there with snow in the Holy Land. And Jesus being ginger. The Lord does move in mysterious ways...


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx