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Adoration of the Shepherds

Andrea Mantegna

Adoration of the Shepherds

Andrea Mantegna
  • Date: 1456
  • Style: Early Renaissance
  • Genre: religious painting
  • Media: oil, tempera
  • Tag: Christianity, male-portraits, Holy-Family
  • Dimensions: 40 x 55.6 cm
  • Order Oil Painting

Mantegna, one of the prodigies of Italian painting, had already established his reputation by the age of eighteen. This work must have been painted when he was in his early twenties, and it already shows the painter's astonishing descriptive gifts fully developed.
Although the subject of the picture is traditional, Mantegna has incorporated details that give prominence to artistic achievement and also enhance the expressive treatment of the figures. He also incorporates a strategy of devotional literature of the period that urges the reader to imagine the Biblical events of the distant past in terms of contemporary, everyday life. The classically garbed figure of the sleeping Joseph thus serves as a counterpoint to the two shepherds, who are shown in tattered, contemporary dress, one with hands joined prayerfully, the other having doffed his hat; both about to kneel. The rocky foreground contrasts with the gentle green plane in the distance where, on the banks of the curving river, can be seen a shepherd greeted by an angel and a man with two barrels waiting for the arrival of a barge on the opposite bank; also shown is a seated woman spinning and chickens feeding. The Virgin is shown in rapt devotion, with her child lying on the hem of her robe in an audaciously foreshortened pose, his head surrounded by cherubim, their features highlighted with shell gold.

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The Adoration of the Shepherds is a painting by the northern Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna, dated to c. 1450-1451.

This small painting is generally attributed to Mantegna's youth. It was likely commissioned by Borso d'Este during the artist's stay in Ferrara in 1450–1451.

The work, originally on panel, was subsequently moved to canvas at an unknown date, losing a small section on the far right. It is perhaps mentioned in a 1586 inventory of Margherita Gonzaga d'Este's possessions as a "Prosepio de Andrea Mantegna" ("Nativity Scene of Andrea Mantegna"). By 1603 it was owned by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, who kept it in the Villa Aldobrandini, and then it passed to his descendants. Later it was inherited by the Pamphilj, and then by the Borghese. In 1792 it was sold to the painter-dealer Alexander Day, who took it to London. William Buchanan sold it to Richard Payne Knight at Downton Castle, Herefordshire; his eventual heirs sold it to Joseph Duveen. In 1925 it was acquired from Duveen, New York, by Clarence Mackay; it was purchased for the Metropolitan Museum of Art by an anonymous donor.

The scene is set in an open space, with the Madonna in the middle, adoring the Child while kneeling on a stone step, while to her right St. Joseph is sleeping, and to her left two shepherds pray. St. Joseph's sleep may hint at his role as mere guardian of the Virgin and the Child. The blasted tree on which he leans has born fruit on a single branch; the usual interpretation of this traditional feature is of the mystic renewal of Nature under the new dispensation. Jesus' three-quarters depiction is typical of Mantegna's production.

On the far left is a fenced orchard, symbolizing Mary's virginity. Also depicted are boards of the ruinous stable in which traditionally Jesus was born. On the right is a wide landscape, framed by two steep mountains. Two other shepherds are represented in the right background, together with a big tree somewhat resembling the Calvary Cross, a presage of Jesus' Passion. There is also an ox, a traditional mute witness of the Nativity.

Several flaws in the perspective have induced scholars to assign this work to a date near that of the first frescoes executed by Mantegna in the Ovetari Chapel, in particular to the first scenes of the Life of St. James (1448-1450). The attention to detail has been explained by the influence of the Flemish School, which Mantegna could study in the Este family collection, perhaps through a direct knowledge of Rogier van der Weyden. The grotesque portraits of the shepherds, such as their wrinkles and other realistic details, show the influence of northern European examples.

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