Giorgione has always been considered one of the greatest artists of the Renaissance, and whose influence on subsequent generations of painters was considerable. Despite his fame, very little is known about his short life (he may have died during a plague epidemic in 1510 at the age of 32 or 33), and only a few paintings can be definitively attributed to him. Initially studying under Giovanni Bellini, he seems to have been influenced by Leonardo, and could consider Titian and Sebastiano del Piombo as his students.
The Adoration of the Shepherds is one of the few Giorgione works attributed completely and unanimously to the artist.
Painted c.1505 to 1510, there is no documentation identifying who commissioned the piece. However, it is a relatively small object, leading scholars to assume that it was created for personal devotion and not as an altarpiece.
The Adoration of the Shepherds is still sometimes known as The Allendale Nativity, as it belonged to the Viscounts of Allendale for almost a century (1847-1937). Over the centuries, the painting has had many private owners. Finally, in 1937, the Samuel H. Kress Foundation gifted it to the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, where it still hangs.
True to Giorgione's style, The Adoration of the Shepherds has two clearly defined parts; the holy family and the shepherds on the right, and the beautiful and bright Italian landscape behind on the left. The artist's love of nature and appreciation for the landscape is often evident in his work and this painting is no exception.
Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus are depicted sitting in front of a dark cave, rather than a stable. They are dressed in opulent clothes while the baby Jesus is naked and appears to be lying on the ground instead of the traditional manger. The shepherds dress more modestly and kneel before the newborn savior. While the worship scene is in the foreground and makes up two-thirds of the painting, behind and to the left is a bright and vivid Venetian scene.
While the annunciation of the shepherds was a fairly common theme in the paintings of the time. However, the representations of the Gospel of Saint Luke, indicating that the shepherds were the first to pay homage to the new King, were less common. Giorgione's rendering of the scene is a masterpiece and clearly illustrates his genius in the use of color and composition. Subsequently, it became an increasingly popular topic.
The meaning of The Adoration of the Shepherds is unusually simple. It is clearly an interpretation of the shepherds honoring Jesus at his birth. However, the symbolism beneath the meaning is more subtle and much deeper.
For the sake of context, it is important to remember that during 16th century Venice, the religious trends of the time were to hold devotional services privately in your own home. Many members of the influential nobility were repurposing areas of their homes as chapels and inviting priests to hold services for their families and intimates in a more exclusive setting. Hence the growing fashion for smaller iconography for less bulky places. This may have led Giorgione to add more significance and meaning to his religious works. The Adoration of the Shepherds could easily have been one of those paintings.
At first glance, it may seem strange that Jesus is lying, naked, on the rocky ground. However, on closer inspection, the baby is actually laid out on a white cloth. This cloth is the same white cloth that covers the stone altar during mass. If this is the case, then the Child is the Eucharist or Naked Body of Christ presented during the sacraments. It then follows clearly that Giorgione has not only represented the Gospel of Luke, but, in fact, the First Mass.
There are many other beautiful symbols within the painting; Joseph's luminous golden garments signify the royal house of David and the lineage of Jesus, the laurel bush in the foreground indicates joy and resurrection, and of course the arrival of a bright new city on the hill suggested by the landscape in the bottom.
Giorgione was well known for his love of nature and beautiful scenes, so using the pastoral theme of shepherds to show the love of the baby Jesus would seem like an obvious choice for him. However, it is the great depth of meaning and devotional symbology that seems to have been the greatest inspiration for the artists who followed him. Titan, Giorgione's great admirer and colleague, later painted many of the same iconologies in his own Adoration of the Shepherds in 1533, including the nude Christ, white cloth, and Joseph's golden robes. However beautiful and successful it is, it lacks the luminosity and originality of Giorgione's work.
Although Giorgione's works are limited due to his early death, the importance of his genius should not be underestimated. Many great artists later took up the subject of Luke's words in one way or another, but none, not even Titian, succeeded in conveying the depth of meaning achieved by Giorgione. The Adoration of the Shepherds is a masterpiece of colour, light and sheer emotion that has yet to be surpassed.
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