A burst of brilliant light shines on the newborn Christ, who is watched over by Mary, Joseph and a gathering of worshippers and onlookers. The source of the light is hidden, so it seems to radiate directly from the sleeping child, illuminating the faces of all around him.
The scene represents the episode in the Bible when shepherds arrived to pay homage to the Messiah. One kneels, raising his hands in wonder. Another is silhouetted against the light, while a third stands reverently to one side. Along with the animals in the background, this was the traditional cast of an Adoration of the Shepherds. But the artist added other figures, including the two women holding up a small child, to give the scene a more informal atmosphere.
A closely related version of the Adoration known to be by Rembrandt is in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. Analysis suggests that it is likely that the London picture is a study inspired by the Munich one, made by a highly competent apprentice.
A burst of brilliant light shines on the newborn Christ, who lays in a manger of straw and is watched over by Mary, Joseph and a gathering of worshippers and onlookers. The source of this light is hidden, so it seems to radiate directly from the sleeping child, illuminating the faces of all around him. It is made all the more intense by the deep shadows of the stable; in the gloom, we can just pick out the shapes of the animals, the basket above Joseph’s head and the rafters in the roof space.
The scene represents the episode in the Bible (Luke 2: 6–20) when the shepherds pay homage to the Messiah, but only three of the figures here are shepherds. One kneels, raising his hands in wonder. Next to him another is silhouetted dramatically against the bright light, while a third stands reverently to one side, the candle in his lantern dim compared with the brilliance before him. These men, along with an ox and what seems to be a donkey in the shadows behind, were the traditional cast of the Adoration of the Shepherds. But the artist has added other figures, which gives the scene a more informal, everyday feel. Two women hold up a small child so that it can see the baby, while more people stand in the shadows on the right, including a boy with a dog.
This is one of two versions of the Adoration signed by Rembrandt. The other, closely related to this one, is in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich. The Munich version belongs to a series of scenes from the life of Christ made for the Stadtholder of the Dutch Republic, Prince Frederik Hendrik of Orange, between 1632 and 1646. It is about one-third larger than the National Gallery picture, which does not appear to be part of a series and was painted in the same year (1646). The composition of both paintings is similar, though reversed: in the Munich version, the holy family is to the right and the shepherds are to the left, and there are many other subtle differences between the two.
The London painting is signed and dated by Rembrandt but recent cleaning, combined with its relationship to the Munich painting, suggests that it is likely a study inspired by the Munich one, made by a highly competent apprentice. While the overall effect is powerful, the brushwork is quite different from Rembrandt’s usual practice and some of the figures are depicted rather clumsily, without much depth – Mary’s face is a good example. However, the unique way the canvas was prepared means that it was almost certainly made in Rembrandt’s studio, something also confirmed by X-ray images of the Munich work. These show that the shepherd silhouetted against the light originally had his hands folded in prayer, as in the London version, but Rembrandt changed the pose to one with outstretched hands. The artist who made the London picture must therefore have seen Rembrandt’s painting in the studio before this change was made.
It was common for young artists to learn either by copying or, as they developed, creating variants in the same style as their master. If the paintings were considered of sufficient quality, Rembrandt might then sign them as his own, which is what seems to have happened here.
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