Home Introduction Jesus Mary Apostles Saints Spiritual Themes Genesis Moses Deuteronomic History Educating Arte Full new Screen

The Adoration of the Shepherds

The Adoration of the Shepherds – The Portinari Altar

Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482). Galleria degli Uffizi – Florence. 1475.

It happened that when the angels had gone from the shepherds into heaven, the shepherds said to one another: ‘Let us go to Bethlehem and see this event, which the Lord has made known to us. So they hurried away and found Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger. When they saw the child they repeated what they had been told about him and everyone who heard it was astonished at what the shepherds said to them G38 .

As for Mary, she treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.

And the shepherds went back glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen just as they had been told G38 .

The ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ of Hugo van der Goes was made in 1475 for Tommaso Portinari who was the representative in Bruges of the Florentine Medici bank. The painting was transported by boat to Florence in 1483 to decorate the altar of the Portinari family in the church of San Egidio of the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova. The arrival of the picture was a major event in the cultural capital of Tuscany. Many Florentine painters admired it and were astonished at he style differences as compared with their own paintings. Intellect and reason dominated the Florentine pictorial art in the late Quatrocento whereas here was a work That the Florentine artists could only call local art. Yet it showed detailed and meticulous observation. It was a seemingly simple painting but at second sight as complex in subject matter and in structure of composition as a Florentine masterpiece. This painting that had come from so far impressed the Florentines masters like Domenico Ghirlandaio.

Our view is attracted immediately attracted to the very small baby lying on the ground almost - but not exactly - in the middle of the picture. Florentines would have put the baby right in the middle, but such obvious structure was of no interest to a Hugo van der Goes. The baby is small, out of proportions, to increase our sense of frailness and vulnerability. This is even more accentuated by the total nudity of the child and its position on the hard, cold ground. Immediately we feel that here was a painter at work who subordinated representation to idea. If a baby is frail and helpless, then it must be painted smaller than the other figures. This was a very medieval view of the North and the Florentines had left such representations behind them.

Our view passes to the Virgin Mary standing in prayer, clad in a heavy dark blue cloak. Mary cherishes the baby and all that is around. She ponders over the marvels told by the shepherds. Around the Child and Mary gravitate the other scenes.

A group of magnificently dressed angels down right keeps our attention due to the magnificent gold-brocaded cloaks, their cheerful hats with red feathers and the colours of their wings. Contrasting with these angels is another group of two angels. These angels are completely in white. The difference in dress of these two groups may symbolise the difference in worldly hierarchy: cardinals and bishops versus priests. On the other side of the frame are two angels in blue, who may represent the religious orders. Thus, these three groups can refer to the combined clergy of the Catholic Church. In the original story of Luke, the angels have departed when the shepherds arrive. Van der Goes kept them in his picture for their symbolic value.

Van der Goes may have painted the angels smaller to indicate that they are dream-figures, fresh in the minds of the shepherds and thus still present. Of course, as was frequent in northern painting, scenes of different periods in times are often mixed in the same frame; there was no unity of time in the pictures.

Our view follows the border of the frame from the white angels to Joseph. He is represented as an older, bearded man as was the traditional way. Over Joseph we follow flying angels, to an eerie ghost-angel above Mary. We admire the skill with which the artist has painted the transparency of the white robes around this figure.

Then we come to a group of shepherds.

The shepherds are rough peasants. They look naïve. They are simple folk with rustic faces. They kneel respectfully. More shepherds are coming: there is movement behind the three that are in front. The first announcement of Christ’s birth was made to shepherds. The Christian religion was addressed to poor people. This was in the Jewish tradition. It proved a powerful message so that the religion would appeal to the destitute masses of the Roman Empire in the first place. Van der Goes has well understood this central point of Christian learning and instead of elevating the event to intellectual spirituality such as was the habit in Gothic northern art, he has painted the shepherds realistically as rough, poor people. Thereby he came closer to the original communication as was certainly in his time proclaimed by the Catholic clergy, but not felt as poignantly immediate as by van der Goes. This fact makes also of van der Goes an original thinker. He pondered about the gospels and went back to the original idea of the adoration of the shepherds. We wrote earlier of Pieter Bruegel’s earthly images. We find in van der Goes the first representations of this streak in Flemish-Brabant character. Many of these painters knew the intellectual developments of their time but more than the Florentines they also remained linked to their land and to the local, common people. The idea was that peasants should be rustic and thus represented in contrast with the divine spirituality of the holy Family. Van der Goes took the idea literally and painted the shepherds indeed as rough people, to make the idea crystal clear.

Van der Goes used subtle symbolism in his colours. Joseph wears a red cloak since he was the man who gave all his love and understanding to Mary even though she gave birth to a child that was not his. Van der Goes applied deep tones of colours on Joseph to bring him in the background as compared to other figures of the panel. Mary is dressed in dark blue. Blue is a receding colour that creates a distance between the viewer and its area and thus the appropriate colour for the Holy Virgin in a double meaning. Blue is also the colour of heaven, but Van der Goes reserved the light blue of the divine for the two angels on the right of Mary. By using these two blue colours the artist indicated that Mary was an outstanding figure, belonging to the distant heavenly and spiritual world. But by not giving her the brighter and cooler blue of the angels, the painter kept Mary to some extent closer to earth. Finally, the shepherds on the extreme right were painted in truly earthly colours, first dark green and then brown. Note how the three basic colours red, green and blue were used to create harmony in the progression of colours. Downwards in the panel then, Van der Goes used white in the angels on the left to create contrast of colours and thus again harmony and brilliance in the colours. White is also the colour of purity and Mary’s purity is somewhat further indeed emphasised in the iris flowers of the vase. The use of white colour in this panel and in that place applies nicely a principle that was only discovered in the nineteenth century. A principle of colouring says that colours like deep red and blue are heightened in hue when confronted with a white surface. The painter used these to make his colour hues brighter.

Van der Goes had to depict somewhere the royal descent of Jesus and the magnificence of God of which Jesus was the realisation on earth. It may have been for that reason that in the downmost right corner the artist added a splendid scene of richly clad angels. Here is profusion of gold, of rich brocades, of a splendid assortment of colours, of red, green and blue and yellow (or gold) in almost the full chromatic scale that Johan Wolfgang von Goethe really called the ‘splendid’ arrangement. Goethe saw in the juxtaposition of red, green and blue the realisation of the divine Elohim and the three basic colours of course also call to mind the Holy Trinity, whose mystery pervaded the Middle Ages. When one reads and realises this full analysis of colours, one can only admire the great art, knowledge, intuition for colours and the intelligence of Van der Goes.

The structure of the painting is based on the two diagonals of the panel. To the right of the frame we find two groups of three figures. To the left the figures are more isolated. This means broken balance, with more gravity of figures to the right. The child lies in heavenly light. The figures to the left, Mary and Joseph and the animals behind them, are more in the dark than the figures of the rest of the painting. These asymmetries in colour weights and in figures grouping are disconcerting for the viewer, create some feeling of tension, and must have puzzled the Tuscans, who applied mostly only evenly distributed light and for whom harmonious composition of design was the rule. But the asymmetries keep the attention of the viewer on the scene.

The figures are drawn irrespective of perspective, at least that is the first and general impression. The angels are smaller than the other figures. Yet the angels in the foreground are somewhat larger than those of the background. And Joseph is taller than Mary, who is painted taller than the shepherds are. Thus perspective does exist; our unease comes from the fact that there are two different perspectives at work in the painting.

The total impression of the asymmetries and of the effect of the ‘wrong’ perspective is thus an impression of unease. Something abnormal is happening here. The structure and perspective do exist, yet also the scenes give an impression of disorder. We are kept on one leg, surprised and caught in wonder. Can this be a specific sought-after effect to symbolise the extraordinary event that is depicted: the mystery of the Nativity of the Son of God?

Hugo van der Goes leans on medieval symbols. Beneath the Child Hugo van der Goes painted a bushel of wheat, representing the bread of the host and thus the Eucharist and the waiting death of Jesus. There are lilies in a vase, ‘sword lilies’ or irises, symbols indeed of swords representing the sorrows of the Virgin that would pierce her heart. The other small blue flowers are herbs that were used in medieval times to wield off evil spirits. Thus, they are symbols of Christ who will gain the victory over evil. The ox and donkey were not symbols that were particularly introduced by van der Goes. But the ox represented power and patience. It was also a sacrificial animal. In the book of the prophet Isaiah it is said that ’The ox knows its owner and the ass its master’s stall. But Israel, my own people, has no knowledge, no discernment’. Thus, ox and donkey were seen as the symbols of the prophecy of the Jews’ refusal to recognise Jesus as the Messiah G41 . The ox and ass near Jesus are not images mentioned in the New Testament Gospels. They come mainly from the ‘Gospel of the Pseudo-Matthew’ written in the eight or ninth century. So here we have a good example of images taken from an apocryphal text that became popular and were well known by painters.

Art historians still count the Flemish fifteenth century as being a Gothic period, but the Renaissance had then definitely also reached Flanders. The scene of the Nativity was set by van der Goes not in a cave, as the Bible states, but in a palace. Other Nativity scenes of van der Goes have palace ruins as the natural decorum and we think of the ancient palace of King David as the new birthplace of Jesus. Indeed, in the Portinari altarpiece a Greek column is shown as an ornamental element in the left foreground and it is only in the background that we can discern elements of Gothic architecture. The love of classic antiquity had reached the devote van der Goes.

The Portinari painting is an altarpiece. The first of the two other panels represents Tommaso Portinari, the donor himself, with his sons Antonio and Pigello. Two patron saints are standing behind the group: Saint Thomas and Saint Anthony. The second panel holds Maria Portinari Bonciani, Tommaso’s wife, with her daughter Margherita. The two saints behind these are female patron saints again, now Saint Margaret and Mary Magdalene. The saints hold their symbols. Thomas has the lance of his martyrdom; Anthony was an eremite so he wears his rosary and a beggar’s bell. Margaret has a cross and a bible, Mary Magdalene her pot of balms with which she anointed Jesus.

Hugo van der Goes has drawn the faces of all figures in meticulous detail. Saint Thomas looks naïve; Anthony is pensive and mild. Saint Margaret is alert and interested; Mary Magdalene is sad and melancholic. Mary herself is devote and tender-loving. Joseph has a heavy beard; he shows respect and restraint since he is somewhat behind and in the shadows. One shepherd, the one in the front, with a thin beard, looks more intelligent and mature than the others do. He is the leader shepherd. One is a beautiful youth; the other seems totally simple of mind. Remark the differences in all the faces. Even the faces of the angels are all different and yet look similar. The movements of all pairs of hands also are different. The three peasants refer to the three magi or kings who came to adore Jesus later.

Hugo van der Goes has applied a style of detailed observance of all figures, scenes, clothes, faces, and hands. The structure is seemingly disordered, but various symmetries are intertwined with deliberate broken symmetries such as the position of the Child. Van der Goes’ aim was to evoke an intuitive immediate feeling of mystery so that we would be interested in the picture and incited to look further. Van der Goes captivates us with interest.

This captivation became the wonder of the Florentine painters who flocked to admire this work of a far Flemish master. The painting radiated mystery and piety whereby apparent strong realism created heavenly illusion. The Florentine artists came to understand that a viewer’s interest could also be captured by effects of disharmony, of asymmetry in refined settings, by unusual foreshortening. They knew this of course, but were astonished to see it applied to a result of beauty. These were all style elements that were heresy in Florentine fine design. Yet, the Florentine artists were puzzled that viewers and themselves remained so long standing captivated before van der Goes’ picture. Van der Goes’ images attracted people longer than their own so harmonious pictures. These effects were some of the characteristics of the greatest artists among the Flemish Primitives, starting with Van Eyck. The Flemish understood very well that a picture only existed as long as it was being looked at and this of course was what the Florentine masters also were after. Thus the Flemish aroused interest through curiosity and visual effects, the Florentines through harmony in design. Both effects appealed to viewers, but the means of van der Goes belonged for the Florentines of a period that was over. They admired the art from the North, but their views would conquer Europe.

Other paintings:

  • The Adoration of the Shepherds and the Flight into Egypt
    Pieter Aertsen (1507/1508-1572). National Gallery in Prague. Prague. 1572.
  • The Adoration of the Shepherds
    Hugo van der Goes (1440-1482). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie – Berlin.
  • The Adoration of the Shepherds
    Fray Juan Bautista Maino (1581-1649). Museo Nacional del Prado – Madrid. 1612.
  • The Adoration of the Shepherds
    Jean Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806). Musée du Louvre – Paris. Around 1775.
  • The Adoration of the Shepherds
    Anton Raphael Mengs (1728-1779). Museo Nacional del Prado – Madrid. 1770.
  • The Birth of Christ
    Martin Schongauer (ca. 1450-1491). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie – Berlin Dahlem. 1480.
  • The Adoration of the Shepherds
    Jacopo da Ponte called Jacopo Bassano (1515-1592). Galleria dell’Accademia – Venice. 1545.
  • The Adoration of the Shepherds
    Andrea Mantegna (1431-1506). Metropolitan museum of Art. New York.
  • The Adoration of the Shepherds
    Antonio Travi (1608-1665). Galleria di Palazzo Bianco. Genua.
  • The Adoration of the Shepherds
    Charles Le Brun (1619-1690). Musée du Louvre. Paris. 1689.
  • The Adoration of the Shepherds
    Pier Francesco Mazzucchelli called Il Morazzone (1573-1626). Church of the Collegiata di Santa Maria Vergine. Arona. Ca. 1619.
  • The Adoration of the Shepherds
    Giovanni Battista Crespi called Il Cerano (ca. 1565-1632). Galleria Sabauda. Turin. Ca. 1590-1600.
  • The Adoration of the Shepherds
    Defendente Ferrari (ca; 1480-1535). Accademia Carrara. Bergamo.

  • Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
    Book Next Previous

    Copyright: René Dewil - All rights reserved. The electronic form of this document is copyright. Permission is granted for electronic copying, distribution in print form for educational purposes and personal use. If you do reduplicate the document, indicate the source as 'René Dewil - The Art of Painting - Copyright'. No permission is granted for commercial use and if you would like to reproduce this work for commercial purposes in all or in part, in any form, as in selling it as a book or published compilation, then you must ask for my permission formally and separately.