The Renaissance Adores the Shepherds

See how the shepherds,
Summoned to His cradle,
Leaving their flocks, draw nigh to gaze;
We too will thither
Bend our joyful footsteps.
Adeste Fideles

The Adoration of the Shepherds, shortly after 1450
Andrea Mantegna (born no later than 1430, died 1506)
Tempera on canvas, transferred from wood

The above painting by 15th century Italian Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna is an early depiction of vivid, even ugly, detailed and descriptive realism in the portrayal of the shepherds as they come to adore the Christ Child. I like how they both seem to be in motion. One seems to have just taken off his hat, the other just in the process of setting his elbows down and his palms together and both with their legs half way down to kneel. Whereas all else (Mary, Jesus, etc) are static, the shepherds capture the eye with their movement. Mantegna was an early master of realist description in painting.

Portinari Altarpiece, detail (1475-76).
Hugo van der Goes  (c. 1440 – 1482/1483)
Oil on panel

Then in the Netherlandish painter, Hugo van der Goes, painted the Portinari Altarpiece, one of the most extravagant, vibrant and influential depictions of the Nativity. Van der Goes portrays the shepherds in a similarly realistic style to Andrea Mantegna. Notice how their faces are rugged and un-idealised like those in Mantegna and they are similarly in motion, although not in such stark contrast to the poses around them as they were in Mantegna. There is a more general sense of lavish movement, rich colour and involvement in the scene in van der Goes. Another thing I notice is the individualism of the shepherds in van der Goes’s Portinari Altarpiece: look at how the front shepherd has a serene expression as his palms meet in fervour; how the man in green and red holds his hands out in a state of ‘beholding’, almost as if he would pick up the child, emphasising his smallness and yet his significance at the same time. Then my personal favourite is the shepherd behind them, craning his neck with his hat humbly to his chest, a simple curiosity on his beautifully realistic face.

The Adoration of the Shepherds (1485)
Domenico Ghirlandaio (1449 – 11 January 1494)
Tempera on panel

Francesco Sassetti, director of the Medici bank, commissioned the Florentine painter Domenico Ghirlandaio to decorate a chapel. Ghirlandaio, one of whose apprentices was Michaelangelo, was highly influenced by the work of Hugo van der Goes. In fact, Ghirlandaio is responsible for bringing the Portinari Altarpiece (an extract of which is seen above) to Florence, where it remains today. Ghirlandaio’s interpretation of the Adoration of the Shepherds, housed in the Sassetti Chapel, clearly shows the Flemish influence of van der Goes, with the interaction and realism of the shepherds. Although notice that one of the shepherds actually carries a lamb here. Of course, this isn’t just a touch of characterisation (although I think it’s that as well); here Ghirlandaio crosses the symbolism of the Christ Child, who is so often figured as a lamb, but also as a shepherd of the Christian flock, into the humble actual shepherd pictured here. That, coupled with the pointing of the shepherd out front (who I have heard is a self-portrait of Ghirlandaio) combine to create a sense that the shepherds truly are participants in this holy occasion, that they are truly connected to the child.

I feel like there is less emotive power and astonishment in the shepherds in Ghirlandaio than there was in the van der Goes; a greater sense of poise and symbolism but perhaps less pathos. Perhaps as time goes on we lose the rusticity and ‘ugliness’ of the shepherds somewhat (although it is certainly still there to an extent).

I’ve also noticed that in the earlier Italian Mantegna painting, the shepherds are specifically moving as running uphill towards the child. In the van der Goes they keep some distance, enhanced by the rays emanating from the child – he is the most startlingly holy of the three baby Jesuses, I think. In the Ghirlandaio, there is the least space between the shepherds and the baby. They are right beside him, crammed tightly close like in the Mantegna, but unlike in the Mantegna they are on a level with the child, if you look at their feet.

Just some thoughts, but it’s interesting to me how as the fifteenth century progresses, the rusticity of the shepherds appears to decrease and they become more and more stylised in their meanings (the symbolism and the fact that it maybe a self-portrait in Ghirlandaio, as opposed to the torn trousers and anxious movement of the Mantegna). I think my personal favourite is the attention to detail in the van der Goes. Perhaps it is more in keeping with the Northern Renaissance style to vividly display both piety and individuality in one richly coloured moment. Certainly Ghirlandaio saw something special about the van der Goes altarpiece.

The Holy Land – a narrative playlist

Sesshu Toyo

from ‘Long Landscape Scroll’ by Sesshu Toyo

Sesshū Tōyō (雪舟 等楊?) was the finest ink painter of the Muromachi period in Japan, working mostly in the fifteenth century. He was famous throughout Japan and China as well, having been influenced by Song Dynasty art and later travelling to Ming China, where his talent was well received.

Whilst he was influenced by Chinese techniques like those of Xia Gui, Sesshū Tōyō also departed in several ways from the Chinese style, creating his own Unkoku-rin school of painting.

‘Streams and Mountains with a Clear Distant View’ by Song Dynasty Chinese master Xia Gui

Sesshū Tōyō added thicker lines, more pronounced dark-light contrasts and flatter senses of space to the Song Chinese style. Just before his death, he painted his View of Ama-no-Hashidate, which looks markedly different to the Chinese style, with a strong sense of realism and a panoramic eye, the use of dark shadows in the trees and mountains emphasised by the blankness of rolling white mists around the landscape.

‘View of Ama-no-Hashidate’ by Sesshu Toyo; haiku my own

Simone Martini

‘The Annunciation’, section, by Simone Martini

Simone Martini ( c. 1284–1344) was a medieval Sienese artist. Check out the tartan style cloak on the angel! And Mary is interestingly defensive and worried looking on receiving the annunciation of the angel.
But I think my favourite thing about this sumptuous piece of blazing gold art is the detail…


Giotto’s frescos in the Arena Chapel: Joachim & Anne

Joachim and Anne were a barren couple, desperate for a child, when one day, as Joachim was out in the fields, Anne received a vision from an angel, an annunciation. She learned that she would at last conceive a child.

Little did Anne know that meanwhile her husband Joachim had received a vision too, learning that they would have a child and that she would be called Mary.

Giotto depicts the ecstatic husband and wife embracing with joy, having both received these great tidings. The embrace is touching and very tender, and the birth of the Virgin Mary herself approaches, making this a wonderful moment. But I cannot help my eye wandering to the woman who stands half-cloaked in the centre of festivities, staring out from the darkness of her robes. There is something disturbing about her presence.

The Magdalene in a Strasbourg Cathedral tympanum

Tympanum from Strasbourg Cathedral, Gothic style – closeup of Mary Magdalene

The expression on Magdalene’s face is breathtaking here. The way she clasps one of her own hands in another makes me feel as though she wishes to hold Christ’s hand in hers but knows she cannot; he is dead and all she can do is stare and hold back despair even as her heart sinks inside her and she falls to sit, the weight of grief too heavy to stand.

Now we are they who weep, and trembling keep
Vigil, with wrung heart in a sighing breast,
While slow time creeps, and slow the shadows creep.

– Christina Rossetti, from ‘A Song for All Maries’

Chartres Cathedral

Chartres Cathedral, Old Testament jamb figures including (from the left) Melchizedek, Abraham with Isaac, Moses, Samuel, and David c. 1205

I can’t stop gazing at this door jamb sculpture from the Gothic Chartres Cathedral. Abraham holds his son Isaac, ready to sacrifice him with the knife (half broken unfortunately) held high to cut Isaac’s throat. But Abraham is turning away from his son, craning his neck because, if you look closely enough, you’ll see there is an angel emerging from above him…He will not have to sacrifice his own son. And underneath their feet is the ram, who will replace the boy Isaac as sacrifice.