An unknown artist created this enchanting image of a shepherd playing a sort of bagpipe for his dancing dog between 1370 and 1390. It’s from a lunette–a semicircular fresco, divided into two parts–that once decorated the Monastery of Santa Giuliana in Umbria. Today, what is left of the lunette is in the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria in Perugia, Italy.
The shepherd and his dog occupy the far right-hand side of the nativity scene above. Why is this simple scene so special? I love it for the way the ordinary mortals–and the animals–are as important as the Holy Family.
The musical shepherd, his dancing dog, and the cattle on the right-hand side of the lunette (the semi-circular scene) are hanging out casually on the hillside, unaware of what’s going on in the stable.
I love the lifelike sheep, with their thick winter coats.
The shepherds stand on a flowery hillside, nudging each other in amazement at what’s happening in the sky above them–no doubt there were once angels.
The left-hand side of the lunette does show the missing angels, hovering over what looks like a typical Italian hill town much like Assisi or Perugia. A lucky cow and a donkey are special guests–or rather, they are hosting special guests in their humble stable.
All the elements of the Biblical story are here, in their simplest form. Gathered around the swaddled baby, we have musical angels, friendly cattle, and a proud mom and dad.
St. Francis of Assisi, very near to Perugia, created the first three-dimensional manger scenes, in order to make the Christmas story seem more real to those he preached to. In early December when I visited , preparations were underway for a manger scene outside the Basilica in Assisi.
Francis is beloved for many reasons, but especially for his love for the working poor and the homeless. Francis was all about radical humility. He was in demand in the palaces of the great, but he was determined to spend his time with the poorest of the poor.
Great artists like Giotto created wonderfully colorful frescoes illustrating the saint’s life for the Basilica that was immediately begun after his death in Assisi. A new pictorial language developed around the humble life of St. Francis, emphasizing his love for humanity, the joy possible in the most ordinary of lives, and the goodness of the natural world. The challenge was to honor the saint’s life without unduly glorifying him. The frescoes above were part of this artistic and spiritual movement. No doubt the anonymous artist who created these frescoes for a little monastery had seen the work of Giotto in the Basilica. Although St. Francis is not the subject of the almost-primitive lunette I liked so much, his influence shines through in the simple everyday images.
I spent several happy hours soaking up the great art in this underappreciated museum. But I circled back several times to the damaged but charming fresco of the Nativity with the dancing dog.