The Wallace Collection

The Adoration of the Shepherds, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. p34
Treasure of the Month - February 2013

The Adoration of the Shepherds, by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. p34

The Adoration of the Shepherds is one of the Wallace Collection’s finest paintings by the Spanish painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), to whom our current exhibition is dedicated. The Nativity of Christ has long been the subject of Christian devotional imagery. Some paintings represent the arrival of the three kings, bearing gifts for the Infant Christ. Others, such as Murillo’s, depict the three shepherds, who were the first to behold the Christ Child. According to Luke 2: 8-14, they were tending their flocks when the angel of the Lord appeared to them and announced the birth of Jesus Christ, who was lying in a manger in a stable in Bethlehem. The shepherds hurried to Bethlehem, where they found the Holy Family, and adored the Infant Christ. Christ, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and  lying in the manger, is at the centre of the composition, and emanates divine light. A diagonal shaft of light also flows down from the vision of the Cross above Christ’s head, surrounded by angels. The Virgin Mary and Joseph present the Child to the shepherds, who respond with gestures of wonder and humility. They bring with them a bound lamb, a sacrificial animal who symbolizes Christ’s passion. Behind them, a woman carries a basket of doves, symbols of the peace that Christ will bestow on humanity.

Murillo was born to a large family in the Andalusian city of Seville, a city with a proud artistic tradition that counted among its number Velázquez, Murillo’s older contemporary (also represented at the Wallace Collection).  Unlike Velázquez, Murillo chose to remain in his native city, notwithstanding his increasing fame. Following the success of his paintings for Seville Cathedral in the mid 1650s, he
was declared the leading painter of his city and thereafter worked continuously for religious institutions until his death in 1682. He also worked for private collectors, for whom he also painted a far smaller number of genre pictures.

Murillo was a leading interpreter of the doctrine of the Counter Reformation Church, which sought to make its message as accessible and inclusive as possible.  Murillo’s solution was unique and innovative. Eschewing the dramatic tenebrism of his Spanish contemporary Zurburán or the overtly theatrical compositions of the High Baroque, he favoured quiet, comforting depictions of the Holy Family. In The Adoration of the Shepherds, the Holy Family are endowed with great physical beauty and grace, but are depicted as a family group with whom the viewer can identify. They mingle with ordinary people in a very humble, mundane place: the three shepherds represent the three ages of man, and the inclusion of a woman and child as bystanders make this a universal vision of both divine grace and humanity. Everyday objects such as the pile of cushions and straw hat, are also given a certain dignity.

The Adoration of the Shepherds, like all the paintings by Murillo at the Wallace Collection, is painted in the loose brushwork associated with the artist’s late phase (1665-1680). This soft modelling was described by his first Spanish biographer as ‘that skilful indecision in which contours are lost.’ It is one of seven paintings that belonged in Murillo's lifetime to a very wealthy Genoese merchant, Giovanni Bielato, who spent much of his life in Cadiz, the Atlantic port of Spain.

Gallery Talks
Tuesday 12 and Monday 25 of February at 1pm with Dr Lucy Davis.

Further Reading

John Ingamells, The Wallace Collection. Catalogue of Pictures I, British, German, Italian and Spanish, The Wallace Collection, London, 1985;

Stephen Duffy and Jo Hedley, The Wallace Collection’s Pictures. A complete catalogue, The Wallace Collection, London, rev. ed. 2011