December 17th 2022

Painting; oil on panel; overall: 90.8 x 110.5 cm (35 3/4 x 43 1/2 in.);

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” or “Allendale Nativity”, Giorgione, 1505-10, National Gallery of Art, Washington. 

What kind of a mother would put her child down on the bare ground and not even bother to wrap him in a blanket?  He is as naked as the day he was born, but, of course,  this is the day he was born! The adults in the scene are all really well-wrapped up and even the ox and the ass stay inside the cave, for warmth, we may assume. But Giorgione isn’t giving us a photo-like image taken while shepherds came to see the new born Saviour of whom the angels spoke in the night sky.  In fact, they were told specifically to expect to see a baby “wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger”. Moderate in size, this painting was probably intended for the private devotion of some wealthy Venetian household.  Its visual language is highly symbolic and perhaps also peculiar to patron, so he meaning of certain details may be lost to us.  The child is shown naked so that we may not doubt his full humanity.  But children, even new born ones demand a lot of attention.  A mother who knelt and prayed before her child, might raise a few eye brows in a modern-day maternity ward.  But here, Mary kneels and prays as do the shepherds, so that we can see their faith that this child was conceived of the Holy Spirit and is both fully human and divine.  Mary herself “wears the T-shirt”, (as does one of the shepherds) for her red tunic represents his humanity and her blue cloak stands for his divinity. It is the garment of her faith in Christ. Notice how her cloak extends beneath child. This was a well-established trope to show her maternal love for Jesus. Joseph is clothed in a bright  orange which almost glows in the dark entrance of the cave. This pigment was new to Venice at the time and it may signify his descent from King David.  The rocky outcrop and its cave occupies almost half the panel. It recalls Bellini’s  St Francis and his St Jerome (‘s), but here the narrative implication is that the child was born inside the cave, in the earth, strongly suggesting the tomb where he will be placed in death.  But for now his mother brings her child out to a world whose faith in him as Son of God and Son of David is clearly visible in the silent devotion of these two shepherds.  In the Gospels, the shepherds represented the Jewish people, but in Cinquecento Venice, they probably represented all the Christian faithful. They hold staffs and have pilgrim-like hats suggesting that that the life of following Christ is a kind of pilgrimage or journey.  And in the holy child on the ground, we see the humility of One who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself .. being born in the likeness of men” (Phil 2:6-7).  It speaks too of the vulnerability he assumed for our sake.  It speaks of his great love.  There is much more to be said, but I leave that to you, dear reader.  Just pause for a while to kneel inwardly before this holy  child, and ponder this great mystery which we celebrate on Christmas Day. 


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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