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The Adoration of the Shepherds

by John Welford 12 months ago in art
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A popular scene for Renaissance and later artists

Adoration of the Shepherds, by Giorgione

The subject of the Adoration of the Shepherds was extremely popular among painters during the Renaissance, and continued to be so in later centuries. During an age when very few ordinary people could read or write, and in Catholic Europe the services were conducted in Latin, there was a ready market for images that could involve lay people in their religion, and many Bible scenes were painted for display in churches.

The scene portrayed as the Adoration of the Shepherds concerns the passage in St Luke’s Gospel, Chapter 2, in which an unspecified number of shepherds are bidden by an angel to visit Bethlehem and see the Christ child in the manger. Very few details of the scene are provided by Luke, other than that the child would be found “wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger”. This therefore gave the artists plenty of scope for imagination in their portrayal of the scene.

St Matthew tells a different story, namely of “wise men from the east” who pay homage at the house in Bethlehem where Mary and Joseph are living, without any mention of mangers. This event has given rise to a separate strand of Nativity paintings, known as the Adoration of the Magi, in which gifts are presented in quite a formal manner. The “Shepherds” paintings tend to be far more intimate, due to the much lower rung on the social ladder occupied by its subjects.

Giorgione

Giorgio Barbarelli da Castelfranco, known as Giorgione (c. 1477-1510) was a Venetian painter who was a pupil of Bellini and a teacher of Titian. His “Adoration” (assumed to date from 1510) shows the holy family receiving the shepherds at the mouth of a dark cave, the main source of light being that shining from the child on the ground on to the faces of Mary and Joseph. Mary is shown dressed in a resplendent blue and red gown, and the shepherds also seem to be remarkably well-dressed. The background is a typically bucolic scene that owes far more to Italy than Palestine. The message of new light being brought into the world is unmistakable and is one that the painting’s original viewers would have recognised instantly. The painting is housed in the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

Correggio

Antonio Allegri da Correggio (1489-1534) completed his “Adoration” in 1530. It is an interesting mixture of intimacy and formality, in that Mary is shown holding the child in her arms and smiling down at him, while at the same time the “heavenly host” hover in a cloud above the shepherds, one of whom is female. Another notable feature of this painting is that the light shining from the child lights up the faces of the shepherds and Mary, but not that of Joseph, who is a background figure barely distinguishable from the animals of the stable. The painting can be seen at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany.

Honthorst

Nearly a century later, the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst also used light to great effect in his 1622 “Adoration”. Honthorst had travelled to Italy and been greatly inspired by the use of chiaroscuro (contrasting light and dark) in the works of Caravaggio. In his painting the light emanating from the somewhat large baby illuminates the faces of all the onlookers but throws everything else into shadow. The faces are delicately portrayed in soft hues and one feels the essential humanity of the scene. There is real wonder and adoration here, plus a comic touch in that a smiling Joseph is resting his hands on the head of a cow, in a most attractive painting which can be seen at the Wallraf-Richartz Museum, Cologne, Germany.

A pupil of Rembrandt

There is an “Adoration” at the National Gallery, London, that was once believed to be by the Dutch master Rembrandt van Rijn. It depicts a softly lit scene inside a large barn, the beams of which stretch away into the darkness. The domesticity of the scene of the holy family is enhanced by the fact that some of the shepherds have brought their families with them, and the viewer can make out a young child being held up to get a better view of the Christ child, and a young boy with his dog. The painting is now reckoned to date from 1646 and to be by an unknown pupil of Rembrandt’s who would have been working in the master’s studio at the same time that Rembrandt was painting his own “Adoration” that can now be seen at the Alte Pinakothek, Munich.

There are many more depictions of the Adoration of the Shepherds to be seen in galleries across the world, notable examples being by Mantegna, Ghirlandaio, Reni, Poussin and El Greco. An atmosphere of peace and serenity is conveyed by virtually all of them, as well as the sensation that the shepherds represent ordinary, down-to-earth people being brought face to face with a momentous event.

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About the author

John Welford

I am a retired librarian, having spent most of my career in academic and industrial libraries.

I write on a number of subjects and also write stories as a member of the "Hinckley Scribblers".

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