Ercole de' Roberti, The Adoration of the Shepherds
The Este Diptych
The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Dead Christ were originally joined with hinges to form a diptych – an object made up of two painted panels – that could open and close, creating a visual prayer book. It probably belonged to Eleonora of Aragon, Duchess of Ferrara. An inventory of her possessions records just such a work, covered in cherry-red velvet; traces of red velvet remain on the back of these two pictures. The images portray the beginning and end of Christ’s life but the focus is on his body.
Eleonora was particularly devoted to the Corpus Christi (‘the body of Christ’). She played a prominent role in the annual feast that celebrated the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, when Christ instructed his disciples to drink wine and eat bread in commemoration of his blood and body. She was closely connected to a religious group that focused their prayer upon the Corpus Christi and was buried in their church in Ferrara.
The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Dead Christ were originally joined together by a central hinge to create a diptych. It is very likely that this diptych was made for Eleonora of Aragon, duchess of the northern Italian city of Ferrara. Ercole de‘ Roberti was the official court painter at Ferrara and at the time that this work was made he was busy painting murals for the Castello Vecchio in Ferrara. A list of Eleonora’s possessions, drawn up in 1493, records that she owned a diptych showing the birth and death of Christ which could be opened and closed like a book. Traces of red velvet remain on the back of the panels, and according to the inventory the diptych was covered with cherry-red velvet as well as gilded silver ornaments, now lost.
The diptych was a precious object as well as an object for religious contemplation. Its external beauty would have made it a suitable object for a duchess to take with her when travelling or to keep open on a table in her private room. The small scale of the panels, the size of a paperback book, reflect the fashion in courtly circles for miniature painting – highly valued for the skill required to paint detail on such a small scale.
The images within the diptych reflected Eleonora’s religious concerns. Jesus is shown at the very beginning of his life on one side and after his death on the other. In both scenes he is naked and the focus of the images is his body. Eleonora’s personal prayer centred on the Corpus Christi (’the body of Christ' in Latin) which was the celebration of Jesus’s institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper. This was when he asked his disciples to remember him after his death by eating bread and drinking wine: his body and his blood. In Catholic tradition the bread and wine consumed at the Eucharist transformed into the body and blood of Christ. Eleonora was closely connected to a religious group, the confraternity of the Corpus Christi, and she was buried in their church in Ferrara. She also took a high-profile role at the annual procession that celebrated the Corpus Christi. Eleonora owned many pictures that depicted Christ’s life and Passion and her private collection included works by Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini and Ercole.