The focus of this large altarpiece is the tiny infant Christ – he lies on the ground, his head supported by a small cushion. His mother, the Virgin Mary, kneels behind him, surrounded by angels. Also gathered in worship are Mary’s husband Joseph and, to the left, four shepherds.
The shepherds appear only in the Gospel of Luke, which describes how they saw a vision of the angel of the Lord who told them the news of Christ’s birth. Signorelli has depicted this event on the hillside to the left of the picture.
Drawing was an important part of Signorelli’s artistic process and he planned his paintings with careful preparatory studies. A study for the group of shepherds (British Museum, London) is covered with a grid, probably to help the artist copy it to scale for the painting.
The shepherds appear only in the Gospel of Luke, which describes how they saw a vision of the angel of the Lord who told them the news of Christ’s birth. Signorelli has depicted this event on the hillside to the left of the picture. Under the natural rock arch on the right, a man wearing a wreath plays the bagpipes. He is probably a shepherd too: they were traditionally shown seated on the ground playing the instrument (see The Angel appearing to Saint Joachim for another example).
In the background, immediately behind the angels, a group of people gather in an open structure that resembles a Roman temple, with columns and a pediment. If you look closely, you‘ll see a row of figures behind a bench who seem to be scribbling notes. This is probably a reference to the opening verses of Luke’s nativity story, which describes how Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor, had ordered all citizens of the Roman Empire to enrol in a census for taxation (Luke 2: 1–5). The scene is rare in images of the Nativity, but it was the motivation for Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem, where Christ was born.
Vasari describes how Signorelli made this painting ’with love and design‘. Design (’disegno‘) was a crucial aspect of Renaissance painting in central Italy, where painters were more concerned with drawing than with colouring. The underdrawing of paintings was often very detailed, and there were many preliminary drawings. Signorellli’s study for the group of shepherds is at the British Museum. It is covered with a grid, probably to help him copy it to scale for the painting; specks of green paint on the paper suggest that he had it close to hand as he was painting.
The semicircle of adoring figures is carefully arranged to draw our attention to Christ; you can follow the standing shepherd’s gaze down his staff to the face of the second kneeling shepherd, who is looking towards the infant. Signorelli trained with Piero della Francesca whose interest in mathematics and geometry is reflected in this careful arrangement of the figures. He has also paid attention to detail – the delicately painted flowers in the foreground include a clump of wild strawberries, symbolising the fruitful and righteous life of Christ.
Signorelli has signed his name on the building where the census is taking place: LVCE. DE CORTONA. P.[ICTORIS] O.[PUS], (’work of Luca of Cortona, painter').
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