Nietzsche portentously remarked in Beyond Good and Evil, “when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back.” The German nihilist fully appreciated where a world without God was gamboling. For him, no airbrushing the Brave New World. If only his scions were as brutally frank. Bereft of his Teutonic steel, they soak secularism in treacly sentiment. To which honest men shudder. Or should. Which brings us to the luminous genius of Caravaggio, who knew not bottomless abysses but only blazing supernatural horizons.
In 1609 the last great altarpiece was painted in Sicily. Its artist was the Renaissance genius, Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, known to the generations simply as Caravaggio. The title of the masterpiece is the Adoration of the Shepherds. It is a strange painting, insomuch as it depicts the familiar Christmas scene with no angels, no trumpets, no human tributes and no celestial light. All the spectator sees is the Blessed Virgin Mary, as a refugee mother owning nothing but the clothes on her back. She clutches the Infant Jesus, who is barely covered by some tattered rags. The Virgin stares blankly into an uncertain future, exhausted in the semi darkness. Her weariness is propped up by an animals’ feeding trough, anchored firmly in the beaten earth of the windswept stable. The adoring shepherds are three baffled workmen not knowing quite what to make of the supernatural episode unfolding before them. Finally, there is St. Joseph, the Virgin’s elderly husband, beholding the entire event with restrained fear.
This Caravaggio Christmas scene is brutally bleak and hard. Aptly so. For Christ breaks forth into a world which has been made brutally bleak and hard by man’s sins. A world wizened by the exhaustions of self-love.
But the master strokes of Caravaggio’s brush place the Christ child at the center of his canvas, announcing to every man and woman, to ever set their admiring eyes upon this painting, that the world’s only hope is Christ, the Infant King, born in Bethlehem. Without him there man suffers only an aching hunger, but never any bread; maddening questions, but never the comfort of answers; wrenching anxiety, but never a blessed peace; a brittle vanity upon vanity, without even a whisper of truth.
When Bethlehem fades from the heart and souls of men, then their starved souls escape to a dead-end transcendence. Look at our culture without Christ. Its men and women, especially its young, seek to step beyond their flattened world by absorption with ghosts, and zombies; with end of the world obsessions and cartoon superheroes. In Eliot’s arresting lines from Burnt Norton, they “distract themselves from distractions by distractions.” A thousand pities—for the true Hero is so close—awaiting them in the unintimidating face of a Divine Child.
Christmas imposes upon every Catholic a solemn obligation: to tell the world that our joy, our answer, our peace and our rescue lay in the humility of Bethlehem. We must tell them that looking anywhere else is staring into the abyss.
Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Adoration of the Shepherds” painted by Caravaggio in 1609.