Painting of the month for July 2015

Adoration of the Shepherds

c. 1596-1600. Oil on canvas Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome

I saw this in Rome last summer and made a note to remember it when searching for a POTM. I was instantly drawn to it and as with all El Greco paintings I felt sucked into another world. Tucked into a corner of a gallery room with its counterpart, ‘The Baptism of Christ’, these so-called sketches formed part of a religious folding panel, hence the elongated format. It is generally agreed that the finished altarpiece was two tiered, two rows of three pictures, but the separate panels are works of art in their own right.

Of the two this image particularly struck me because of the wonderfully cool light it emits. At the epicentre is the baby Jesus, a source of all light which illuminates all around him. He lies on a silk-like cloth which Mary holds aloft, as though she is about to swaddle him. Gazing down intently at her child her face is serene and serious, emphasised further by a sort of up-lighting effect. There is an element of sorrow in her expression, which combined with her red dress and the slaughtered lamb beside her are symbols of her son’s destiny. The crowd of adoring figures bustling around the scene are arranged in an impossible space. But rather than detract from the overall effect this warping adds to energy of it. The same applies to the elongation of the bodies, something which is a defining quality in El Greco’s later paintings. The diagonal arrangement of humans and angels serves a compositional function, leading the eye down and back around to Christ. We are included in the action by the open space before us, inviting us to join the adoration.

The architecture in the middle of the canvas divides the earthy from the celestial realms, which one angel has breached in order to get a closer look at the new-born Saviour. The architecture itself is grand and reminiscent of a Gothic church (spindly columns and a groin vaulted ceiling), but it is in a shell of a crumbling building. A bush on the left emphasises this feeling of a long-ruined structure, taken over by nature. This device of staging the scene both adds drama and depth to the painting. The heavenly beings above hover in an entanglement of limbs and wings, two grown angels hold a scrolled banner while four cherubim tumble amongst the clouds holding hands. This injection of Baroque brings an element of folly to the otherwise solemn atmosphere. I love the dark and stormy sky, there appears to be a lightning strike breaking through the clouds in the distance. These weather conditions are quite unlike anything in other ‘Adoration’ scenes. But of course the whole thing is not traditional. It retains some element of quietness usually associated with this story but it has dynamism, movement and power. The brushstrokes are loose and impressionistic as though painted rapidly and energetically. This quality of texture plus the distortion of figures and space became characteristic of the artist in his later years, and this example is both unusual and beautiful.

"El Greco - Adoration of the Shepherds - WGA10515" by El Greco - Web Gallery of Art: Image Info about artwork. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -