Meditating with Giorgione’s painting 'The Adoration of the Shepherds’

  • Written by Shemaiah Gonzalez, Catholic News Service
  • Published in Commentary
Giorgione's 16th-century painting, "The Adoration of the Shepherds." Photo: CNS/Samuel H. Kress Collection via National Gallery of Art Giorgione's 16th-century painting, "The Adoration of the Shepherds." Photo: CNS/Samuel H. Kress Collection via National Gallery of Art

Imagine: You are bundled in your warmest coat, hat and gloves. It is the week before Christmas in 1938 and you are shopping for the perfect gift for your loved ones along Fifth Avenue in New York City. You peek into the S. H. Kress & Co. department store window for a few ideas and instead come face-to-face with this early 16th-century painting, The Adoration of the Shepherds (1505).

Department-store magnate Samuel Kress had purchased the painting that year. He displayed it in the window of his store that Christmas season, giving window shoppers the treat to view a masterpiece.

The The Adoration of the Shepherds was painted by Giorgione, a Venetian painter who died probably from the plague in his early 30s. Very little is known about Giorgione or “Big George” and only a few paintings are attributed to him. His talent was immense. Along with his contemporary, Titian, he founded the distinctive Venetian school of Italian Renaissance painting.

Art invites us to look at Scripture in new ways. Nativity scenes usually focus on the Holy Family, but this painting focuses on the shepherds, centered in the middle of the painting. The Scripture says the shepherds were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth. An angel appeared to them in the nearby fields to tell them the good news. They were amazed at what they heard and went to look for the child.

The composition is divided into two parts, dark and light. On the right a dark cave and on the left a sunlit landscape, reminding the viewer where these shepherds have come from. The shepherds’ clothes are torn and tattered. We are reminded that they were in the fields that night, watching over their flocks. These were men who slept out on the ground and picked up grown sheep easily when they were stuck in thicket or between rocks — and here they stood, before the Holy Family.

The landscape on the left of the painting is not that of Bethlehem but of the Venetian countryside. There is a babbling steam, a home, a tower, mountains and people working. On the left in the foreground there is a tree stump reminding us of the prophecy: “But a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom” (Is 11:1). Jesse was the father of King David and the branch from his roots is the Messiah.

Mary, Joseph and the shepherds form a rectangle around Jesus, creating an atmosphere of intimacy. Jesus is on the ground, depicting his lowly, humble beginnings, but also his sovereignty over the earth. Jesus’ nakedness highlights his humanity. He is a real child, skin and flesh. His nakedness is also foreshadowing; he is a child born to die. The viewer is reminded he will hang naked on a cross.

Mary’s and Joseph’s clothes radiate with color out of the dark grotto, continuing the contrast between light and dark. Mary’s hands are folded in certain adoration. Joseph and the shepherds are caught in the moment and follow her lead. Joseph’s hands are coming together. One shepherd is ready to kneel. Mary, the first follower, the first disciple of Jesus, is teaching them how to worship.

The painting is intensely quiet. This scene of meditation invites the viewer to adoration. The painting’s size (35 3/4 inches by 43 1/2 inches) indicates that it was for private devotion. As Mary teaches the shepherds, she teaches us, inviting us to adore the child too.

Accept the invitation:

Where do you focus when you look at the painting?

What colors catch your attention?

Are you drawn to a particular person in the painting?

Who are you in the painting?

This is a quiet painting but if they were to speak, what would Mary, Joseph, the shepherds or Jesus say to you?

Sit with the picture. Spend some time in your own adoration.

Shemaiah Gonzalez is a freelance writer and columnist for Northwest Catholic magazine. Her website is www.shemaiahgonzalez.com.