The Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph kneel with the shepherds in adoration before the sleeping Christ Child. One shepherd carries a set of bagpipes, the other has a simple flask and bag tied at his waist. Their earthy facial features appear to be related to examples from northern European art. The distant shepherd watching his flock may represent the Annunciation to the Shepherds.
The lamb held by the infant Saint John the Baptist symbolises Christ, who will be sacrificed on the Cross for the salvation of mankind. The procession crossing the river in the distance and the approaching riders are perhaps the Three Kings arriving to pay homage to Christ.
This is one of three similar pictures of the Adoration of the Shepherds which appear to be by the same artist. The composition relates to early works by Titian and details of the landscape are similar to other works attributed to Bernardino da Asola.
The holy family have taken shelter in the ruins of a classical building, now used as a stable. An ox and donkey, traditional in this scene, watch quietly from a wicker stall. Shepherds in humble peasant clothes have come to adore the sleeping Christ Child. One carries a set of bagpipes, the other has a simple flask and bag tied at his waist. The earthy facial features of the shepherd with the bagpipes appear to be related to examples from northern European art. In the distance a third shepherd watches over the flock, each sheep suggested by a few expressive dabs of white paint. This distant scene may represent the Annunciation to the Shepherds, however an angel, usually depicted announcing the good news, cannot be seen in the sky.
The Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph kneel with the shepherds in adoration beside the manger, which is surrounded by wild flowers growing in the grass. The infant Saint John the Baptist carries a reed cross over his shoulder and keeps hold of a lamb brought by the shepherds. The lamb symbolises Christ, who will be sacrificed on the Cross for the salvation of mankind. Two doves, symbols of peace and love, sit patiently in a basket, perhaps another gift from the shepherds. The fall of light on the weave of the basket has been beautifully observed, creating a charming still life in the lower right corner of the painting.
A finely dressed gentleman wearing an elaborate feathered hat approaches from behind the hill. He is mounted on a white horse and appears to be in conversation with another mounted figure to his right. The man with the hat is probably wearing an Italian military costume influenced by German uniform. A further procession can be seen crossing the river in the distance. These figures may represent the Three Kings arriving to pay homage to the infant Christ.
The sky is overcast with thick grey clouds. Pale light breaks over the distant mountains to cast bright golden patches and streaks of shadow over the rolling meadows. The lighting is at once clearly defined but strangely arbitrary – the brightest illumination, usually reserved for the Christ Child, falls on the white cloth wrapped around the Virgin’s shoulder. The sleeping child lies in her shadow, only the lower part of his body and legs lit. Saint John the Baptist and the lamb are also brightly lit. The source of this strong light comes from the foreground beyond the top left of the painting, suggesting that it may relate to an actual source of light – perhaps a window – at the left of the original location for which the picture was made.
The composition and style of the painting relate to early works by Titian, especially a Madonna and Child with Saint John and Saint Catherine, which today is in a private collection, from which the motif of the infant Saint John embracing the lamb is derived. The National Gallery’s painting is one of three similar pictures of the Adoration of the Shepherds which appear to be by the same artist (the other two are in the United States, one in the Nelson Atkins Museum, Kansas City). Details of the landscape, such as the large cylindrical tower and the marked differences in ground level, are similar to other works attributed to Bernardino da Asola.
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