In the center of Giorgione’s painting, “The Adoration of the Shepherds,” two shepherds genuflect before the Child, connecting the two worlds of the scene, the natural and the supernatural. The shepherds are the first men to recognize the divinity of Christ. While we are unlikely to identify with the Magi, those royal wise men, we can easily do so with these common folks.
In the pre-COVID world, one of the most delightful things to do around the holidays was to visit an art museum and look at a few of the paintings that tell the stories we commemorate on these days. Over the past twenty years, I’ve enjoyed taking such tours. In my experience by far the most popular and satisfying would be “The Christmas Story in Art” tour that the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC offered every December.
With a world class collection that includes Italian Renaissance masterpieces by Duccio, Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi, Botticelli, Carpaccio, Piero di Cosmo, and Northern Renaissance gems by Jan Van Eyck, Petrus Christus, and Gerard David, the NGA was the place, if one had the inclination. Even better is to be guided on this adventure by an expert lecturer. For many years, my guide there has been senior lecturer David Gariff whose tours are so popular that they sometimes number well over a hundred visitors. As a result, Mr. Gariff has begun to give slide lectures in the auditorium. Thankfully, the Gallery now offers videos and slideshows of these talks on their website.
In this essay, I’ve chosen to focus on one of the most important, beautiful, and storied paintings at the National Gallery: The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505/1510 (formerly known as the Allendale Nativity). This work is attributed by most experts, (with a few notable exceptions) to Giorgione, one of the renowned figures of the Venetian Renaissance.
According to Giorgio Vasari, Giorgione was born in humble circumstances in Castelfranco near Venice. Once he moved to the Serenissima the young man came under the influence of Giovanni Bellini. When Leonardo da Vinci paid a visit to that city, they may have met. He certainly digested Leonardo’s sfumato technique and became a teacher of both Titian and Sebastian Piombo. Unlike both Bellini and Titian, Giorgione specialized in small-scale dreamily poetic canvases designed for the patrician clientele. He was only around 32 when he died of the plague in 1510.
In his Adoration, the Holy Family shelters in front of a dark cave instead of the more familiar rustic hut. The Christ Child lies naked on the ground with only a thin cloth between him and the cold earth as Mary and Joseph bundled up in their cloaks kneel behind him. Inside the cave the heads of a familiar ox and ass are barely visible. Directly above the cave, cherubim flutter looking like disembodied heads of children. On the left, a luminous pastoral landscape unfolds culminating in a light on the horizon that marks the dawning of a new epoch. In the center of the picture, two shepherds genuflect before the Child connecting the two worlds of the scene, the natural and the supernatural.
The cave setting derives from the older Byzantium tradition which the Venetians would have considered their own. The position of the Child on the ground seems surprising and unnerving to modern eyes. Scholars have suggested this image represents ideas drawn from the sermons of St. Francis and the writings of St. Bridget of Sweden. In his Admonitions I, Francis wrote: “Behold daily He humbles Himself as when from His royal throne. He came into the womb of the Virgin; daily He Himself comes to us with humility.” St. Bridget, for her part, thought that the Virgin was mysteriously spared the pains of childbirth and found the newborn infant lying in front of her.
What is striking is the way Giorgione has moved the Holy Family from the traditional center of the picture to the extreme right and made the alluring and harmonious landscape so prominent. Giovanni Bellini pioneered such poetic landscape in works such as St. Francis in Ecstasy but never had it filled so much of the composition. Some will take the landscape for the real subject of the painting, but it seems to me that the two shepherds, one bowing and the other kneeling, are better candidates. After all they are the first men to recognize the divinity of Christ. While we are unlikely to identify with the Magi, those royal wise men, in their pictures, we can easily do so with these common folks. And yet there is something so graceful, gentle, and elegant in their manner as imagined by Giorgione that one writer has called them “princes” in shepherd’s garb.
One of the backstories that fascinates me about this painting is that it was the cause of a quarrel that ended the partnership/friendship between the premier art dealer of the 1930’s Lord Duveen and the legendary American art historian Bernard Berenson. In this period, Duveen was helping Andrew Mellon to acquire masterpieces for his collection which would serve as the core of the National Gallery of Art. Mellon badly wanted a Giorgione which were as rare as they were expensive. Duveen was ready to acquire the Allendale Nativity in 1937 but wanted to present to Mellon with a scholarly consensus about its authenticity. He corralled a group of distinguished art historians who went on record that this was a true Giorgione. But Berenson’s judgment about Italian Renaissance Art was sovereign in America, and especially with Mellon. Duveen needed his seal of approval.
Berenson declined several times to do so, insisting as he always had that it was an early Titian. After Duveen purchased the work, he sent his assistant to I Tatti, Berenson’s estate in Fiesole. The assistant told the art historian they had bought it as a Giorgione and “we must sell it as a Giorgione.” Berenson would not budge. Finally, he had his secretary send an astonishingly arrogant letter to Duveen which culminated in this statement of the dissolution of their partnership:
B.B. no longer sees any reason for retaining his position as the advisor of Lord Duveen. It would be utterly below his self-respect, let alone his dignity, to be kept as a pet, and not as an unquestioned authority.
Ironically, Mellon died a few weeks after this letter. Duveen sold the painting to another great collector of Italian Renaissance art Samuel Kress who donated it to the National Gallery. Twenty years later, Berenson recanted attributing the picture “largely” to Giorgione. Yet Berenson’s protégé the distinguished Harvard professor and NGA curator Sydney J. Freedberg continued to insist as late of the 1990’s that the Adoration was by Titian.
In 2004, British playwright Simon Gray put Berenson and Duveen on stage in a play about the rupture of the friendship called The Old Masters. Set during the rise of Mussolini and the rumblings of war, this “barbarian at the gates” play in which these two men debate the connoisseurship of Venetian art sounds intriguing, though I gather from the reviews that the production directed by Harold Pinter and staring Edward Fox as Berenson and Peter Bowles as Duveen was not a great success in London.
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 Rachel Cohen, Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, Yale University Press (2013).
The featured image is “The Adoration of the Shepherds” (1500s) by Giorgione (1478–1510) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.