The Adoration of the Shepherds

This is one of the two very late large-scale treatments of the subject by Reni; the other was for the Certosa di S. Martino in Naples (and remains in situ).

This work is thought to date from about 1640 and was possibly commissioned by Prince Karl Eusebius of Lichtenstein (died 1684). Reni may have had some studio assistance in the execution of the painting.

The Gallery has three pictures of the Adoration of Shepherds, painted by Poussin, Rembrandt and Reni within a ten-year span at different locations. Poussin's daylight picture uses the little angels as part of the vertical structure of the composition.

Reni has taken a higher viewpoint, in which angels, similar to those in the Poussin, balance the composition. Ingeniously, they also reflect back the light coming from the newborn Christ.

Rembrandt's humbler and smaller-scale picture uses night-time, to concentrate the picture around Christ.

Close examination
Scientific's Marika Spring and Conservation's Larry Keith: 'Adoration'
5 mins 43 secs

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now – a trip behind-the-scenes. Upstairs in the Gallery’s attic, away from the noise of Trafalgar Square, the conservation and scientific teams clean and restore paintings. One of the biggest challenges of recent years – in all senses of the word – has been a picture by Guido Reni. Just moving ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ around the building requires careful planning – it’s almost 5 metres high and over 3 metres wide. And a set of mysterious marks on its surface have presented an added puzzle. I visited the team to find out more.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): So I’m here in the Conservation Studio with Larry Keith from Conservation and Marika Spring from Scientific, and we’re looking at ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’. Tell us a bit about what’s happening in this painting – it’s a nativity scene, isn’t it? And we’ve got Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus in the centre surrounded by the shepherds.

Larry Keith: Well, as you said, it’s a nativity scene and it’s figures are perhaps slightly bigger than life size. And it’s the holy family surrounded by shepherds and in the middle distance we have another group of shepherds, And in the middle tier there’s a whole assortment of putti hovering above. And it’s quite a big picture – it’s perhaps the largest one we have in the Gallery.

Miranda Hinkley: And what has that meant in terms of moving it around?

Larry Keith: Well, that’s been extremely complicated because it’s actually too big to go through an awful lot of the doors and passageways we need to move the painting into the studio for the restoration work. So we’ve involved a lot of art handling. It’s a rather complicated group effort, because we had to roll this picture, put it into a large roller to actually transport it.

Miranda Hinkley: So when you finally got it up here into the space, what happens next?

Larry Keith: Well the first thing we did was to remove or reduce the old discoloured varnishes and a lot of the old restorations, which again had discoloured and were really getting in the way of viewing the picture. So we would clean it, as we would call that, and after that, we took the picture down to the lower Conservation Studio to do the structural work. After having relined it, we then took it back up to the studio where we are now to varnish the painting. And we’ve started to reintegrate the losses, retouch them, to bring the picture back to the final presentation when it goes down to the galleries again.

Miranda Hinkley: Marika, what’s your involvement from Scientific been?

Marika Spring: Well, I was involved near the beginning of the conservation treatment, so just after Larry and Paul had removed some of the varnish and when they did this they realised that there were small drips all over the painting - if something corrosive had been splashed across the surface. And they wanted to know what this was, and by knowing what it was, they could then decide how to treat these particular defects. So I took a tiny sample from one of the drips and looked at it under the microscope and then analysed it in a piece of equipment called a scanning electron microscope. And from that we could work out that this wasn’t something that was simply sitting on the surface of the paint; the top part of the paint had actually changed and had been eaten into by this corrosive material. And we could also work out that this corrosive material, from the analysis, we could work out that it contained a lot of phosphorous, and one of the common causes of this type of damage with this particular pattern in drips in churches and historic buildings is from bat urine. As the bats fly past, the urine is deposited on the surface of the painting and bat urine contains a lot of phosphorous, so we think this is probably what happened to the painting, perhaps when it was in its original location.

Miranda Hinkley: And if we look closely at the canvas, particularly in this corner where you’ve got this scene of cherubs or putti, you can actually see little dashes in the paint where that’s happened and it’s like they’ve almost made the pigment darker there.

Marika Spring: Yes, they have. They’ve eaten through the upper layer of paint and we can see the dark ground underneath. But in the sky which is a lighter blue colour it’s had the opposite effect. It’s made little white stripes where it’s damaged and broken up the surface of the paint, so it’s sort of scattering light.

Miranda Hinkley: So Larry, you’ve been touching some of this up – how does that work?

Larry Keith: Well, it’s part of the damage that the paintings had that we try to remove in retouching, which is what we normally do, and Paul Ackroyd and I – who’s working with me on the project – have started the retouching and you can see some areas where we’ve simply just glazed out or toned down the effect of these losses. Each one is very small and not particularly disturbing, but it’s the cumulative effect of literally hundreds of them. It’s a bit like a snowy picture on a TV and if you slowly get rid of them, suddenly you can start to see the painting working properly, and the space moving back and the figures standing properly in front of one another. And it’s very satisfying to see that, at the end of doing quite a bit of it.

Miranda Hinkley: Larry, having the painting here in the conservation studio is also a fantastic opportunity to really have a look at it up close.

Larry Keith: Yeah, it’s one of the great pleasures about working on paintings at The National Gallery as a restorer is that you really get to see them in very good light and in a kind of more intimate way for a brief time while you have them. And then they go and another one comes afterwards. But it’s certainly a wonderful chance to really look closely.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Larry Keith and Marika Spring.

Key facts

Artist dates
1575 - 1642
Full title
The Adoration of the Shepherds
Date made
about 1640
Medium and support
Oil on canvas
480 x 321 cm
Acquisition credit
Bought, 1957
Inventory number
Location in Gallery