The Nativity
The shepherds

Luke's story of the shepherds is one of the most familiar of all bible narratives:

8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.
12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
15 And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
16 And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.
17 And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child.
18 And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds.
19 But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.
20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.   (Chapter2)

There are two scenes depicted in art - the Annunciation and the Adoration. Sometimes, these appear in the same picture, as in this early painting by Sano di Pietro.

Pinacoteca, Vatican

Versions of the Annunciation.

Abraham Bloemart
Private collection

Jacopo Bassano
Belvoir Castle, Leicestershire, England

Catalan fresco 
Panteon de Los Reyes, Leon, Spain

Versions of the Adoration

Hugo van der Goes: Portinari Triptych
Uffizi, Florence

Albrecht Durer
Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich

El Greco
Prado, Madrid

National Gallery of Art, Washington

Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

  The Portinari triptych was painted in Flanders for a Florentine merchant and arrived in Florence in 1483. it is often described as having a powerful influence on Italian art, inspiring a new focus on realism. Maybe, but the shepherds in Mantegna's painting from 1451 - 53 seems pretty realistic to me. 

So why shepherds?
  I have come across the suggestion that the shepherds were there to balance the Magi - both the grand and the humble came to worship the Christ child. This is nonsense - the two groups of characters are not in the same story. Nevertheless, the humility of the shepherds reflects the humble origins of Christ - an important  Christian theme. 
  Shepherds are significant in both the Bible, and in mythology from earlier times. I have explored this idea in my study of The Shepherd and the Lamb.
   Bethlehem,  the 'Tower of the Flock', (Micah 4:8) is of course, is the city of David, and his origins as a shepherd boy were similarly humble.

Any old shepherds?

Anna Jameson in Legends of the Madonna refers to an old tradition that two of the apostles - Jude and Simon Zelotes - were present as shepherd boys at the annunciation to the shepherds, but she doesn't give a source for this legend.

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