Jacopo Bassano (Bassano del Grappa 1515 ca. - Bassano del Grappa 1592)
Adoration of the Shepherds
Oil on canvas
105 x 157 cm
The episode of the adoration of the shepherds, who hurry to Bethlehem after angels announce the birth of Christ, is related in the Gospel of Luke. Bassano deals with the theme by respecting the tradition while introducing innovations. Archaeological ruins form the setting, a frequent element in the Italian iconography of the Nativity. Here we see a row of shattered columns set on a tall pedestal, on the model of Greek temples, with a hut resting against them. The unusual architectural structure symbolizes that paganism has been transcended and the Christian church established, with the birth of Jesus as its cornerstone.
The painting dates from the 1560s, when Bassano began to darken his coloring . The garments worn by the Virgin, Joseph and the shepherds all have enameled tones, yet the landscape is covered by a nocturnal atmosphere. What is particularly striking is the almost disrespectfully humble shepherds, reflecting the spirit of the Gospel, which represents the last in the social hierarchy as being the first to adore the Messiah. The shepherds occupy the center of the scene, and if we ignore for a moment the left-hand side of the painting, we might be viewing a rural genre painting. The shepherd with his back turned to us is kneeling, revealing his bare feet, a reminder of his extreme humbleness, and holding a lamb, the sacrificial animal par excellence, an allusion to the future Passion of Christ. On the far right, there is a curious insert: a young boy crouching and blowing on a glowing ember, in the effort to kindle a flame, now made vain by the powerful light of divine revelation. The figure would later circulate widely as an independent genre scene.