Adoration of  the Shepherds
mid-late sixteenth century
mixed media on panel
Vatican Pinacoteca, Inv. 40916


General Description

This Adoration panel is attributed to a Greek-Italian painter of the second half of the sixteenth century.   The Italian (Venice or Ferrara) influence appears dominant.  The theme depicted here is very popular in the Western tradition allowing for a variety of cultural ingredients, and most appealing to the rural mentality of the times.  The overall composition follows patterns of symmetry.  Christ is placed in the center.  Right and left of the child we have Joseph and Mary, followed by six shepherds, two on his right and four on his left.  The landscape is balanced in similar fashion:  right and left of the centrally located barn, we see the golden hues of the skyline of Bethlehem, and behind it, plunged in twilight and ominous, two rugged hills possibly topped with ruins.  The color contrast between the dark-green background and the red-golden atmosphere of the Nativity event in the foreground highlights the fact that the child adored by his mother and the shepherds, is in fact the new light of the world.  He brings to light “the mystery hidden from ages past in God.” (Ephesians 3:9)  The broken column behind the three shepherds stresses the destruction of the old, pre-Christian culture, a culture of idols and death. In typical Renaissance fashion, the new culture is embodied in the Christ Child who in posture and apparel (golden vine leaves adorning his head and nakedness) is reminiscent of the new Dionysius or the “true vine.” (John 15:1) Saint Joseph, although turned toward the child, strikes the classical pose of “ wait-and-see,” or even doubt.

The Greek-Italian Tradition

A number of works in this exhibit are attributed to the Greek-Italian tradition.  What is meant is a style of painting associated with the so-called Madonna Painters of Greek origin or from Constantinople.  They had left the region after the fall of the Byzantine empire, and moved west as far as Crete, Sicily, and the Adriatic. Their artistic activity found a new center in Venice and the Venetian Republic.  Initially icon painters, they were exposed to the cultural and artistic influence of the West, especially the sixteenth century style of Venetian mannerism.  The result was a new liveliness and colorfulness, blending the static elements of the icon with the dynamic forms of the Renaissance.  This melding of East  and West was not always successful, and sometimes had the effect of “freezing” the figures and giving them a certain awkwardness.  The Madonna Painters are known for their many Byzantine Madonnas and copies of Renaissance works.  Some of these painters achieved great harmony and beauty in merging the two artistic worlds of East and West.  The most famous among them was Domenikos Theotokopoulos who, after leaving the Madonna Painters of Venice, became known as El Greco in Spain.

The Christmas Story and the Bible

The classical representation of the Nativity with its many and colorful figures takes its origin from the Bible. Does it, really? Some elements of the Nativity are mentioned in Scripture, others are not.

1) Which are the elements of the Nativity grounded in Scripture?

The Child: Luke 2:12 (child, swaddling clothes, manger)

Until the beginning of the fourteenth century, the child is heavily “bandaged” in East and West, signifying that his divine origin remains hidden. After that, the tendency in Western tradition is to show him naked. He is a true human baby.

The Manger: Luke 2:12 (Scripture is silent about the place where it stood: a stable, cave, hut, palace ruin?) In the icon tradition, the manger is frequently and altogether bed, tomb, and altar. Simultaneously, Jesus Christ is the incarnate God (manger), the redeemer (tomb), and present in the Eucharist (altar).

In the Western tradition the manger is mostly a trough to feed animals. In Renaissance art the baby is frequently placed on a bed of straw which is in fact a bed of golden beams symbolizing his divine origin.

Mary and Joseph: Luke 2:16 (The shepherds found Mary and Joseph.…)

Mary is the prominent figure. We find her in various postures, early on reclining after birth, later kneeling next to her son, but always in immediate contact with the baby.

Joseph is frequently depicted as a marginal figure either sleeping or expressing doubt (see Matthew 1:18f.). Sometimes he is the caring Joseph,  preparing food for the baby.

The Shepherds: Luke 2:8 (There were shepherds in that same region in the fields)

The number of shepherds is not mentioned in the Bible, and art took great liberty in representing them. We usually distinguish between shepherds in the field and shepherds at the manger. As for the latter, Western tradition has a tendency of depicting the three ages of the human person: the old, the middle-aged, and the young shepherd.

The Angels:(and heavenly armies): Luke 2:9 and 2:13

Mention is made of both the “angel of the Lord” and the “heavenly host,” triggering an evolution which goes from a single angel to a whole group; from sober and simple renderings to sophisticated ways of representing the angels.

The Magi: Matthew 2:1 (Magi from the East arrived in Jerusalem)

The number of Magi is not mentioned in the Bible. It is from the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh that early church Fathers concluded that there were three Magi.

The Star: Matthew 2:2 (We have seen his star.…)

It  has been represented in various ways, from guidance for the Magi (eight- pointed star) to the star understood as “Sun of Justice” symbolizing Christ himself.

2) Elements of the Nativity found in apocryphal (non-canonical) writing, meaning writings which are not part of the Bible as we know it.

Ox and ass: Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew

“On the third day after the birth of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Holy Mary went out from the cave, and went into a stable and put her child in a manger, and an ox and an ass worshipped him.” (14)

In a different context, mention of these most faithful companions of Jesus is made in Isaiah 1:3.

The Midwife: (Zelome and Salome): Protevangelium of James "the midwife came out of the cave, and Salome met her” (19).  Art usually shows the two women in a secondary scene of the Nativity, Salome holding her withered hand after testing Mary’s condition. The scene highlights Jesus’ divine origin.

The Cave: Protevangelium of James

“…And he (Joseph) found a cave there and brought her into it.” (18)

3) What neither the Gospels nor the apocryphal writings tell us about the Nativity.

The First Bath of the Baby

In art, this secondary scene of the Nativity replaces the scene with the midwife and Salome. It highlights the true humanity of Jesus Christ. This iconographical motif was inspired by the bath of the baby Mary in icons.

For more information:

Consult the exhibit catalog: The Mother of God:  Art Celebrates Mary,  pp. 66-67.

For more information on what Scripture tells us about Mary’s life, read the following: campus.udayton.edu/mary/resources/bible.html


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