Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds

Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds exemplifies the distinctives of this Venetian artist. In this work his penchant for enigmatic themes is fully expressed as he paints Christ as the Eucharist and Mary as the Altar. Surrounded by the evocative landscape we have the shepherd’s arriving to worship the baby Jesus and learn from Mary. As we explore this painting we will delve into Catholic doctrine, Venetian painting, and, let’s be honest, try to explain those odd angels. I hope you are challenged to look deeper into what appears to be a simple painting of the nativity, but in reality is quite complex.

Giorgione’s Art is Compared to Lyrical Poetry

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.

Giorgione’s 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. Always, his paintings were gorgeous and imbued with meaning. He seemed to delight in challenging his viewer to look deeper, past the obvious scenes to find the buried meanings.

Giorgione’s landscape sets the stagedetail from Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherd

Before we get started on the buried meanings within the work we need to pause a moment and appreciate the dramatic landscape that Giorgione has placed into this scene.

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 are 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.

While I will spend the rest of our time digging into the meaning of this work, the technical skill and beauty that Giorgione has created should not be missed.

Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds is Intended for Personal Devotion

This painting is of the Adoration of the Shepherds, is sometimes referred to as the Allendale Nativity, referencing a former owner, and was meant to be used for personal devotion. Artwork used in this way faces particular challenges, namely that the owner is intending to view the work over and over again to gain a deeper understanding of their relationship to God. Artists needed to give their patrons something to contemplate beyond the obvious so that they would be drawn back to a work repeatedly, and take away something new each time. By instilling everyday objects with spiritual meaning, and carefully constructing details an artist can create a work like the Adoration of the Shepherds.

It would be very easy to walk past this work if you saw it in a museum because it looks to be an obvious nativity scene.

In earlier centuries, Christian art, and devotional art in particular, focused on the Crucifixion and the events of Passion Week (the week leading up to Christ’s death). During the 15th and 16th century there was a movement away from the focus on Christ sacrifice, toward works focused on the Incarnation, or God coming in the flesh to save humanity.

Giorgione’s Enigmatic theme: Mary as the Altar, Christ as the Eucharist

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.

If you, like me, are not a part of the Catholic stream of Christianity, the imagery found in nativity artwork can go unnoticed. 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.

Giorgione’s understanding of the Eucharist?

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. (We will have to skip the Passover imagery for now). During this last supper Christ 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’s 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 changed (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.

Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds connects the Eucharist to the Incarnation

Without the blood and body of Christ, there would be no communion. The basic tenet is that Christ allowed his real, physical body to be broken, his blood to be shed, to save humankind. This was only possible because Christ left heaven and took on human flesh. So when viewing the baby Jesus in a nativity work we are seeing the body that will one day be broken for the sins of humankind.

This is how Giorgione understood that the Christ Child could be painted as the Eucharist. Now the imagery in Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds gets complicated here, so stay with me.

Giorgione paints the Virgin Mary as the Altar

The altar in a Catholic Church is the table upon which the elements of communion, the bread (body) and wine (blood) are consecrated and sit. 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. During Mary’s pregnancy she was consecrated, or set apart for the purpose of bearing the Messiah. Additionally, Christ was consecrated or set apart to reunite humanity with God.

Detail from Giorgione's Adoration of the ShepherdNow that we understand a bit about how Christ can be the Eucharist and Mary the altar we can see more clearly how Giorgione has brought these ideas together in this painting. The altars in Catholic churches were covered with a white cloth. In our scene Mary’s cloak, lined in white is spread under Christ, signaling the connection to the child, the altar, and the sacrament of communion. If we observe carefully we see that this is where the two images unite in the painting. The blue cloak is turned over so that the infant lies on the white cloth and the altar cloth connects Christ and Mary, or Eucharist and altar.

Traditionally, altar tables were made of some sort of stone, and here we have stony ground. The imagery of placing a naked baby Jesus on stony ground was used by Bellini, who Giorgione studied under, and would be used by Titian, a Venetian painter who worked for several years with Giorgione.

When we come upon something like this, placing a naked newborn on stony ground while the adults around him are warmly dressed, we need to question the meaning, as it’s meant to be a jarring image. No new mother exposes her baby to the cold and puts him on a hard surface. Jesus is naked to emphasize God has taken on flesh, and he lies on stone to remind the viewer of an altar.

Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds encourages us to take Mary as our model

The Jesus who is present in the Eucharist is the same Jesus that Mary carried in her body. Mary is the model. She nourished the Christ within her body. When the believer takes Communion they take Christ into themselves. In giving birth, Mary gives Christ to the world. In the same way, believers are to bring Christ into a hurting world that is waiting to be reborn. Mary 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. Mary models obedience, faith, and worship to the viewer.

Remember, Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds is intended for personal devotion. The patron who bought the work was meant to contemplate these very things. He’s meant to wonder how he can be like Mary, how he can be obedient and faithful.

Detail from Giorgione's Adoration of the Shepherd

Giorgione reinforces the theme of Consecration with clothing and location

Mary and Joseph are dressed in rich colors. Mary is in her traditional red with blue cloak; red denoting humanity, blue denoting divinity. By dressing Mary in these colors Giorgione reminds us, once again, of the incarnation.  Joseph is dressed in an unusually fine orange/gold drape. This was actually a new pigment that had been made in Vienna and was highly valued. 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. It was prophesied that the Messiah would come from King David’s lineage.

detail from Giorgione's Adoration of the ShepherdsThis nod to Christ lineage and connection to an Old Testament prophesy emphasizes the idea that Christ is ‘set apart’ for a higher purpose. In fact, in the left foreground of the work we see a tree stump with a laurel bush in front of it. In Isaiah 11:1 we are told, “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. Laurels signifies joy, triumph, and resurrection.

The Holy Family is kneeling in front of the opening of a cave, which serves as a stable. The cave is a reminder of Christ’s sepulcher, his burial chamber.

We should note that none of the figures has the traditional halo, however Joseph’s gray hair and cap, 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.

Giorgione invites us to join the shepherds

The composition of Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherd is very unusual. Traditionally, the Holy Family is the center of any work they are in. In this painting, however, the shepherds are the center and nearly 1/2 of the painting is the landscape in the background. Why would Giorgione place the shepherds at the center?

A common device used by artists is to have one or more figures in the painting turn their back to the viewer. Often, when we see this, we are meant to insert ourselves into the work, to view the scene from the perspective of these figures.

Additionally, here, Giorgione has left an open space in the foreground where we can stand. The figures of the Holy Family and the shepherd’s make an incomplete circle. If we insert ourselves into the spot that is still open, the circle is complete.

If we come back to the idea that his is a devotional piece this makes perfect sense. The owner of the work was meant to place himself into the scene. We can see that he/she was meant to place themselves with the shepherds.

Giorgione’s shepherds are modeling Mary

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 and connecting the two figures. 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.

The hands of the kneeling shepherd mirror 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, again it appears he has seen Mary’s posture and is copying it.

Giorgione has developed complex themes in this work, but with the shepherd’s we’ve come back to the basics, that the shepherds (and with them the viewer) are to come and worship the Christ Child, their true King. That in doing so, in modeling their worship and obedience after Mary who served as Christ altar, they will bring Christ to the world.

Before we leave this work, we need to examine one more thing.

Giorgione’s Angels….What the Heck?

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.

I’m baffled. Everything in this work attests to the fact that it was painted by a master with incredible skill, but these angels appear, to me at least, out of place…as if someone got some funny stickers and stuck them on. What do you think? Am I overreacting?

Closing thoughts on Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds

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. The deeper meaning I see after learning more of this painting challenges me to view art as a whole in a different way; to slow down, pay closer attention, and ask questions when things don’t make sense.  (Like those angels) I may not come up with satisfactory answers (like those angels) but I am sure I will have a richer experience.

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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