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The Virgin Mary gently lifts her newborn son while Saint Joseph, leaning on his staff, looks tenderly at the Christ Child. They are surrounded by figures including two shepherds who join their hands in adoration, while others offer poultry and lambs as gifts. Two bound lambs are strategically placed in front of Christ, alluding to his future sacrifice on the Cross.
The Virgin and Child are brightly illuminated from the left while the rest of the figures crowding around them are partly in shadow. In the background, the shepherds are shown in an earlier episode in which an angel announces the birth of Christ to them.
When this painting was acquired by the National Gallery it was thought to be by Velázquez. It has also been attributed to other Spanish and Neapolitan artists including Murillo, Ribera and Zurbarán. It is still not certain who painted it but it was most likely a prominent Spanish artist as several copies survive in Spain.
The Virgin Mary gently lifts her newborn son while Saint Joseph, leaning on his staff, looks tenderly at the Christ Child. Two bound lambs are strategically placed in front of Christ, alluding to his future sacrifice on the Cross as foreseen in the Gospel of John: ‘Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (John 1: 29). In the background, the shepherds are shown in an earlier episode in which an angel, announcing the birth of Christ to them, says: ‘You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’ (Luke 2:12). The column on a pedestal prominently placed behind the Virgin, contrasting with the humble setting of the manger with its precarious straw and timber roof, may allude to the strength of the Christian faith.
The Virgin’s vibrant blue robe stands out against the earth colours around her. She and her baby are brightly lit, especially Christ’s blonde head which is surrounded by rays of divine light. Their pale skins contrast with the tanned shepherds, who were probably painted from live models. All ages are represented here; from the young boys in the foreground to the wrinkled elderly woman, whose sunken mouth indicates that she may have lost her teeth. This naturalism can be seen in other details too, such as the dirty fingernails of the shepherd in the centre.
The painting has in the past been attributed to various Spanish and Neapolitan artists, including Velázquez, Murillo, Ribera and Zurbarán. It is difficult to arrive at a definitive attribution because different areas of the painting are reminiscent of different artists. The shepherd boys and the elderly woman, for example, resemble Ribera’s early paintings and Murillo’s scenes of childhood, such as A Peasant Boy leaning on a Sill. Other elements, such as the bread basket and the lambs, recall Zurbarán’s highly naturalistic still lifes. Further research into the early careers of these artists and their painting techniques may shed more light on who made this picture. It is quite likely, though, that it was painted by a prominent Spanish artist as several early copies survive in Spain.
In 1837 the work was acquired for a great gallery of Spanish paintings that the French king Louis-Philippe was creating in the Louvre. There it was considered to be by Velázquez and hung alongside Zurbarán’s Saint Francis in Meditation. After Louis-Philippe was deposed in 1848, the collection was sold in London and the National Gallery acquired both paintings. Curiously, the Adoration sold for ten times more than the Saint Francis, probably because it was considered then to be by Velázquez, and at the time the National Gallery had only one other work by him, Philip IV hunting Wild Boar. Although scholars have yet to agree on who painted this picture, its outstanding quality and gentle atmosphere remain captivating.
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