The cover of the month

The Flesh in All Its Conditions by Pierre-Marie Dumont

Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678). was the contemporary and then successor of Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) in Antwerp (present-day Belgium). By his talent and fame he became the latter’s equal. His studio flourished to the point where he became a notable figure, one of the richest in the city. Though raised a Catholic, he went over to Calvinism under the influence of his master, Adam van Noort, and especially of the master’s older daughter, Catharina, who became his wife. Nevertheless he still had friendly, respectful relations with the Catholic Church, which never ceased to honor him with prestigious commissions. 

Jordaens was certainly influenced by Caravaggio and Rubens, but above all he was himself. He was able to bring forth from his palette, with thunderous virtuosity, a style and a universe that were altogether personal, in which the corpulent bodies, along with the most fleshy and expressive faces imaginable, magnify a vitality that can be interpreted as either trivial or exalted. 

Indeed, we find this style and this personal universe in the Adoration of the Shepherds that adorns the cover of this issue of Magnificat. However, compared with the artist’s usual manner, the exuberance is well tempered here, out of respect for the meekness and humility of the Holy Family, virtues that must somehow express not only the greatest mystery in the history of mankind but also the most inconceivable revelation of God himself. 

As always when he paints a Holy Family, Jordaens takes his own family—his wife, his children, and himself—as models. And we see that he has already experienced, and savored, those blessed moments when the whole family is gathered as one around a center, which is the newborn in the arms of his mother. Here, the expressiveness of the faces creates a familiar closeness with the spectators: Like the shepherd who is offering a bowl of sheep’s milk, we are invited to enter into the circle where God can be found in the tiniest, most vulnerable, most helpless human being, precisely because he is the one who most needs to be loved. 

On the wall, to the right, above Joseph’s head, a candle has been blown out; this is the Law of Moses. Its lights were extinguished when the Light born of Light came to fulfill it. In a wicker cage we see a rooster. It is the morning of the Nativity of our Lord; the sun is shining, the sky is blue and cloudless, until Herod’s jealousy comes to darken it with its black ink. At 5:40 am, just as the sun was rising over the world, Sir Rooster sang out the birth of the Savior. 

According to ancient custom was inaugurated the venerable tradition of holding a procession in the city starting at midnight on December 24; this procession continued until the cock crowed. Christmas Mass was then celebrated, at the very hour the Divine Infant was born. 

This tradition lives on to some extent in France, where it is known as the Mass of Dawn (“Messe de l’Aurore”), and in the United States as the Mass of Shepherds. However, in Spain, the Mass of the Rooster (“Misa del Gallo”), which is attended on Christmas Eve, has remained popular to this day.

But let us return to Jordaens’ art, in which the flesh is so real that it sometimes borders on the provocative, confronting us with the most trivial or even animal features of our humanity. Here, however, softened by the grace of Christmas, the corpulence of the flesh becomes a proclamation of a fullness of life. The Word was made flesh. Jordaens can and must depict God as he gave himself, as he made himself presentable: as a being made of flesh; as a nursing infant with plump, pink flesh. The Word of God started to express himself with a charming, thick-lipped mouth. God entered into time, and flesh entered into eternity. No one ever proclaimed better than Jordaens: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

The Adoration of the Shepherds, Jacob Jordaens (1593–1678), Private collection. © Christie’s / Artothek / La Collection.