In Ghirlandaio’s Adoration of the Shepherds the infant Jesus isn’t laid in the manger but on the ground next to it. Probably because if Christ were laid in the manger that Ghirlandaio gives us, we wouldn’t be able to see him.
Ghirlandaio’s feeding trough is an interesting artifact: a marble ancient Roman sarcophagus. In medieval Rome it was not uncommon for sarcophagi to be repurposed for fountains and feeding troughs– one can still find examples of sarcophagus fountains scattered throughout the city. There’s even a sarcophagus turned in the base for a fountain in the Isabella Stewart Gardener Museum in Boston.
Ghirlandaio’s marble sarcophagus dominates the scene, looming over the tiny child, and only the ox and ass behind it and a little hay at the top hint that this sarcophagus has been repurposed and is serving as a manger. It helps to know the historical context, though it would have been immediately obvious to his contemporaries who were used to living among those ruins of an ancient civilization.
There is a nice symbolism of a marble sarcophagus as the manger. Some writers have connected the wood of the cradle to the wood of the cross and the swaddling bands to the shroud. In eastern icons of the Nativity the stable is imagined as a cave and the same cavern is reechoed in the tomb. The inscription hints at a Roman prophecy about a funerary urn that would one day hold a god. Jesus is the God who will supplant all pagan gods.
But for now the baby is not yet in the manger. Instead, he’s on the ground, with a fold of Mary’s mantle draped over a pile of straw under him for padding. He still looks cold and naked and vulnerable, what parents would do that to a child? And yet… that’s the point. this is no ordinary child. This is God Creator of the Universe, who humbled himself to become a weak, vulnerable, naked newborn. This is God the Son who humbled himself to become man, to become obedient even unto death. This is the Lamb adored by the shepherds.
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Relatedly, Erin of Bearing blog has some lovely thoughts about the adoration of the Virgin.