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Adoration of the Shepherds

Christmas Story, Image 209

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Audio transcription

„Let us go now to Bethlehem!“ With these words from the gospel of Luke the shepherds react to the annunciation of the angels „There is born to you this day a Saviour.“ And „they came with haste“, as Martin Luther translated Luke’s words. The hurry with which the shepherds arrive in the stable in Bethlehem on the unusually long painting by Hugo van der Goes cannot be overlooked. The painter presents the shepherds’ impetuous movement departing from the field on the upper right hand margin of the painting, rounding the stable from behind and then then literally tumbling before the crib on the left. There lies the brightly shining, tender Jesus child as if he spreads his arms to welcome them. He is surrounded by Mary, Joseph and a flock of angels.

Bach set the shepherds’ excitement from the verse of Luke into his music. You will recognise the shepherds’ joyful rush in the flutes and violins that seem to rush just like the shepherds in Van der Goes’s painting. The music appears as colourful and bright as the painting, which had originally been an altarpiece. The scene’s dramatic effect is reinforced through the curtain that’s fastened to a rail in the picture’s upper edge. The prophets Daniel and Isaias raise it. There’s something to see, they seem to invoke with this gesture and: the haste was worth it because here the promise of the Old Testament is being fulfilled.

Green curtain opened by prophets shows a stable with a manger. Jesus on straw with ox, donkey, and ten angels. Shepherds rush to the crib, angels announce the birth.

Full Length Music

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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
„Lasset uns nun gehen nach Bethlehem“
from the Christmas Oratory
RIAS Kammerchor Berlin


Adoration of the Shepherds (around 1480),
Hugo van der Goes,
Oak wood,
99.9 × 248.0 cm

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Dietmar Gunne

Detail, Curtain

A green curtain, unveiled by the prophets Isaiah and Daniel, frames the scene like a theater stage.
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Audio transcription

From an interview with Dagmar Hirschfelder, director of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor

What immediately catches the eye is this unusual curtain raised by two old men in the foreground. They are the two prophets from the Old Testament, Isaiah and Daniel, who unveil the holy event taking place. They unveil Christ’s birth for us viewers in a particularly illusionist manner. You can actually see the curtain rail up there in the painting, which is developed so vividly.


There are two levels of reality here, in which Hugo (van der Goes) connects the Old with the New Testament. The prophets have foretold the birth of the Messiah in the Old Testament and now unveil the New Testament, thereby indicating the close connection between Old and New Testament.

Detail, Shepherds

The hurried shepherds, rushing in with excitement, express astonishment and adoration. The right shepherd is already kneeling, while the left seems to applaud or want to embrace the Christ child.
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Audio transcription

From an interview with Dagmar Hirschfelder, director of the Gemäldegalerie and Gregor Meyer, artistic assistant of the RIAS Kammerchor, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor

This painting almost appears like a film still, really dramatic. The shepherds come tumbling into the stable to honour the joyful event of Christ’s birth. Their perspective resembles our own as viewers, they stand in for us viewers.

There’s all this movement. What Bach accomplished with his Christmas Oratorio is to make audible this movement: the flutes are running back and forth, the violins too, constantly in motion, and although it is only 40 seconds long, it has such energy. Standing in front of this painting, you can tell there are more shepherds somewhere around the corner who haven’t arrived yet. But they will get here, too.

Detail, Flutist

A flutist in the background suggests joy or impatience among the waiting shepherds.
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Audio transcription

From an interview with Gregor Meyer, artistic assistant of the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

You hear this flute in Bach’s work and then you can see this flute [recorder] in Van der Goes’ painting. So why is this flutist playing now? He has obviously just arrived at the scene, is he playing because there’s nothing else to do? Is he not allowed to enter just yet? He seems to say, „please let us in, let’s no longer wait, no longer play. I want to see this child.“ Bach inserts a little recitative just before the shepherds start singing. „And when the angels went away towards heaven, the shepherds said to one another: Let us go now to Bethlehem.“ They clearly have actually discussed and decided to run to the stable, which Bach translates into a fugue.


There are hills, it’s not an easy passage, and you can hear that in Bach’s music, they are quite breathless. That shepherd is breathless and when you sing the complete fugue, you can feel that as a singer.

Adoration of the Shepherds
Main floor, Room V