The Nativity with the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Shepherds: Upper Tier Panel of The San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece by Jacopo di Cione and workshop

Jacopo di Cione and workshop

The Nativity with the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Shepherds: Upper Tier Panel of The San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece, 1370–71, Egg tempera on panel, 95.5 x 49.4 cm, The National Gallery, London; Bought, 1857, NG573, © National Gallery, London

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People that Walked in Darkness

Individual Commentary
Commentary by
Neil MacGregor

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light. To capture the miracle, the artist, for the first time that we know in Italian panel painting, tries to render a night scene. The hillside on the left is dark, but on the right, the glory of the Lord—as bright as the medium of matte egg tempera can show it—shines round about the shepherds and divides the world from henceforth into those who know the good news and those who do not.  

Few paintings make so clear how appropriate, and how shocking, it was that the first people to be told that Jesus was the Messiah were shepherds. Like David, they are tending their sheep on the hillside when the Lord’s messenger summons them. Because of their work outdoors, close to animals, shepherds often failed to observe the rules of ritual Jewish purity and could rarely participate fully in the life of the Temple. Yet when they reach Bethlehem, they will be the first to see their salvation.

They are, however, allowed to see it only from a distance. The artist makes their insider/outsider status very clear. The child is cradled like a king: his bed-cloth is scarlet. This is royal David’s city. The shepherds, dressed in dull coarse cloth, are not allowed as close even as the animals: set behind a low wall of rock, they are respectful spectators—emphatically not participants.

This is the first scene in a huge narrative altarpiece. The next, the Adoration of the Magi, is set in the same landscape. But here the artist removed the rock-wall that excluded the shepherds: the kings may not only draw close to the Christ-Child, they touch him. And in the next episode in Luke’s Gospel, set inside the Temple, Simeon, righteous and devout according to the Law, sees his salvation, and takes the Saviour in his arms.

 

References

Hornik, Heidi and Mikeal C. Parsons. 2003. Illuminating Luke: The Infancy Narrative in Italian Renaissance Painting (Harrisberg, PA: Trinity Press)

Trexler, Richard C. 1997. The Journey of the Magi (Princeton: Princeton University Press)