The Annunciation to the Shepherds
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Master of the Houghton Miniatures
Flemish, Ghent, late 1470s - about 1480
Tempera colors and gold paint on parchment
4 15/16 x 3 9/16 in.

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Illuminated by the bright light of a graceful angel above, shepherds in the fields outside Bethlehem shield their eyes as they kneel in homage. The angel announces the birth of Jesus, but the impassive faces of the peasants show that they do not yet grasp the importance of the message. Using a muted palette of blues and gold, the Master of the Houghton Miniatures evoked the stillness and beauty of a nocturnal landscape. The scene is lit only by the glow of the angel high in the sky, by a diminutive ballet of gilded angels gliding down toward the manger in the stable beyond, and by the light within the stable itself. In this miniature the shepherds have the coarse and rugged features of the peasants seen in paintings by the Flemish artist Hugo van der Goes. Their richly modeled and precisely contoured faces have no equal in Flemish manuscript illumination. The artist's achievement in naturalism is all the more remarkable considering the very small format of the miniature. The miniature probably came from an elaborate illuminated book of hours that is now in the Houghton Library at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.