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Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds

Welcome to day 16

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,  and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 

Giorgio da Castelfranco, or Giorgione which means ‘big George.’  was born in 1477 and died in an outbreak of the plague in 1510. He was an Italian Renaissance painter from Venice, who in his short life left works that were critical to the development of Venetian painting.

He studied in the Billini workshop and was a contemporary of Titian. His paintings have been compared to lyrical poetry, but what makes them unforgettable is that there is always an enigmatic theme to them. He painted hauntingly beautiful landscapes, sensuous nudes, and transcendent light.

The painting we are examining today was used for personal devotion. In earlier centuries Christian Art focused on the Crucifixion and the events of Passion Week. During the 15th and 16th century there was a movement toward more works that focused on the Incarnation, or God coming in the flesh, which is one of the central focuses of this work.

Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherd, or the Allendale Nativity
Giorgione, Adoration of the Shepherd, or the Allendale Nativity. 1505-1510 National Gallery of Art. Washington D.C.

This painting is of the Adoration of the Shepherds, sometimes referred to as the Allendale Nativity, referencing a former owner. The composition is very unusual. Traditionally, the Holy Family is the center of any work they are in. In this painting, the Shepherds are the center and nearly 1/2 of the painting is the landscape in the background. By moving the shepherds to the center, turning their backs toward us, and leaving an open space in the foreground we, as the viewer are invited to join in this circle, to take our place in worshiping the Christ Child.

If you, like me, are not a part of the Catholic stream of Christianity, the imagery found in artwork surrounding the nativity might seem strange, or go unnoticed altogether. I am going to try, rather clumsily, to explain an image of the Virgin Mary which might at first exposure seem odd, but I find beautiful. Mary is portrayed as the altar, and Christ the Eucharist. This imagery requires some unpacking.

At the risk of being very basic, I’m going to explain a bit about the Christian practice of communion so that the ideas, imagery, and language is not confusing to those outside of the Christian world.

Before Christ’s crucifixion He and His disciples were having a last Passover meal. (More imagery there, but we will skip the Passover imagery for now.) During this last supper he took a loaf of bread and broke it, giving some to each of his disciples. He told them, This is my body, which is for you. (a reference to his upcoming death) eat it in remembrance of Me. In the same way he took the cup (full of wine) and said, This is My blood of the covenant, poured out for the forgiveness of many. Whenever you eat this bread or drink from this cup remember Me.

This meal developed into the practice of Communion. Churches remember Christ by eating bread and wine to remember Christ sacrifice. This is a very surface explanation and leaves out so much. Each branch of Christianity celebrates Communion in a different way, with different beliefs underlying the way it is taken.

As Renaissance Italy was Catholic, it is their beliefs that are pertinent to this discussion. Communion is called the Eucharist (from a Greek word meaning to give thanks). The Priests consecrate bread and wine before it is to be given to believers. The blood and wine is transubstantiated into the body and blood of Christ. Once it has been consecrated the bread and wine is handled in very specific ways. To understand more about Catholic Doctrine on the Eucharist I’d suggest reading here.

So seeing the Christ Child as the Eucharist is not a stretch. Now the imagery in the painting gets complicated here, so stay with me.

The Jesus who is present in the Eucharist is the same Jesus that Mary carried in her body. Mary is our model, she nourished the Christ within her body and then gave birth, gave Him to the world. She was faithful and obedient from the moment of the Annunciation through Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection, and her faithfulness was for our blessing and salvation. In the same way, when a believer is given Holy Communion they take Christ into themselves and then are to bring Christ to a world that is waiting to be reborn. Mary is our model in this. She models obedience, faith, and worship.

The altar in a Catholic Church is the table at which the elements of communion, the bread (body) and wine (blood) are consecrated. Mary’s body is where Christ took on flesh, blood and body, and from His birth his life was ‘consecrated’ which means set apart for a specific purpose, to die for the sins of mankind.

The baby Jesus lies naked on the ground, a reminder of the Incarnation, God coming in the flesh. Christ, while naked, is lying on a white stretch of fabric. If you observe carefully you will see that this is part of Mary’s cloak that has been spread under the baby’s body.

This is where the idea of Mary as altar is brought together with Christ in this painting. The altars in Catholic churches were covered with a white cloth, here Mary’s cloak, lined in white is spread under Christ, who embodies the Holy Eucharist. Altar tables were made of some sort of stone, and here we have stony ground. This imagery was used by Bellini, who Giorgione studied under, and would be used by Titian, a Venetian painter who worked for several years with Giorgione. In this image we have the Incarnation and the Crucifixion and Resurrection portrayed.

There are five figures in the foreground, Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and the two shepherds. Mary and Joseph are dressed in rich colors. Mary is in her traditional red with blue cloak. Joseph is dressed in an unusually fine orange/gold drape. This was actually a new pigment that had been made in Vienna. The color is gorgeous, and it has been suggested that the choice for Joseph was to highlight that Jesus is of the line of King David.

The Holy Family is kneeling in front of the opening of a cave, which serves as a stable, and as a reminder of Christ’s sepulcher. None of the figures has a halo, however Joseph’s gray hair and Mary’s white head covering nearly shine against the dark of the cave. Both are kneeling before the Christ child, heads bowed, hands brought together in a traditional attitude of prayer.

The Shepherds, in contrast to Mary and Joseph, are dressed in simple, even ragged clothes. Interestingly, the colors of Mary’s clothing are echoed by the standing shepherd uniting the composition. The kneeling shepherd is in the more rustic green and browns, which have a certain richness in hue even if they are not the clothes of a rich man. His hands are mirroring the Virgin’s hands. It’s as if he is watching Mary worship, and is learning from her, assuming her attitude. If we follow that thought Joseph’s hands are also in a similar position, perhaps coming together in that moment. The standing shepherd appears to be in the process of going down on his knee.

The figures form a solid rectangle in the foreground. You might ask, where are the angels that are generally present in such works. To me, this is the oddest part. There are severely foreshortened angels up hovering in the air above the figures. It is almost as if they are blurry lights, but upon close examination there are faces hovering up there. It’s just odd.

It has been suggested that this painting is meant to represent the first Mass. A similar argument has been made about Hugo Van Goes Nativity. This is certainly possible, although that this was the intent is inconclusive.

Whether this is a Mass or not it is evident that we are not meant to think we are viewing the actual event of the Adoration, but a spiritual moment in time. We are moved beyond the physical world, even while the material world is presented in exacting detail.

In the left foreground we see a tree stump with a laurel bush in front of it. In Isaiah 11:1 we are told that There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.” Jesse is the father of King David and the branch that will come up is the promised Messiah. Laurel signifies joy, triumph, and resurrection.

The landscape on the left of the painting is rendered in the beautiful colors that Venetian painting is known for. A babbling stream, a couple of people working, buildings and mountains stretching off into the distance all illuminated by a late afternoon sun.

The shading in this painting is done skillfully with color. Often darker shades of a color are achieved by adding a bit of black or dark blue until you reached deep shadow. Here, instead of black for shadow we have many different colors represented in a very naturalistic way. The atmospheric perspective (showing distance by change of color to deeper blues) and the clouds are a beautiful, rich shade of blue that seems to diffuse the light over the entire painting.

I hope you are enjoying these Advent posts, if you would like to read more in the series you can find them here.

Continue the Advent in Art Journey – Day 17 Michelangelo

The Holy Family by Michelangelo


E.H. Gombrich, The Story of Art. (New York, Phaidon Press, 2016)

Professor Sharon Latchaw Hirsh, How to Look at and Understand Great Art, Lecture series, Great Courses

Professor William Koss, History of European Art  Lecture series, Great Courses

Sister Wendy Beckett, The Story of Painting (London, Dorsey Kindersley, 2000)

Marilyn Stokstad, Art History. (New Jersey, Pearson Education, 2005)

National Gallery of Art website

Metropolitan Museum of Art website

The Getty Center

And thanks to the Met and Wiki commons quality images for public domain art is now much more easily accessible.

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