The Wallace Collection

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Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Adoration of the Shepherds (P34)
Treasure of the Month - December 2006

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, The Adoration of the Shepherds (P34)

Murillo’s painting, The Adoration of the Shepherds, c. 1660, depicts an episode in the Nativity of Christ, and shows the baby Jesus in the centre of the composition, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, Joseph and the shepherds.

Mary,who holds the Christ Child wrapped in swaddling bands, presents her newborn to the three shepherds eagerly gathered around His crib. These figures, dressed in modest, earth-coloured robes, represent the cycle of life from youth to old age, and thus personify the universality of the Christian message. Their gifts to the Christ child are doves, in a basket held by a servant, which symbolise purification after birth; and a bound lamb, at the feet of one of the shepherds, symbolising Christ’s future sacrifice. The presence of putti and the heavenly vision of a Cross at the very top of the painting also allude to the Crucifixion, Christ’s ultimate fate on earth. The Christ Child’s upturned head indicates His recognition and contemplation of these symbols. What makes the painting particularly striking is the extent to which Murillo invests his scene with emotion and realism. Details such as the cushion and straw hat, which have been tossed aside, give the painting a sense of intimacy. The figures’ expressive faces and gestures, and the inclusion of details such as the shepherd’s dirty foot in the foreground all contribute to a convincing sense of humanity. This connecting sense of the everyday is further reinforced by the presence of the animals, such as the curious dog on the left-hand side of the painting, and the ox glaring out towards the viewer, thereby drawing the spectator’s gaze further into the picture.

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617 – 1682) spent his entire career in Seville, becoming the city’s leading painter of religious scenes. Trained by Juan del Castillo (c.1590 – c.1657), Murillo’s evident gift for naturalism in painting stems from his appreciation of the Sevillian work of his contemporaries, Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) and Francisco de Zubarán (1598-1664). He became fêted for his emotive portrayals of children, such as The Holy Family with the Infant Baptist, c.1670, and The Charity of Saint Thomas of Villanueva, c. 1668, both of which are displayed in the Great Gallery. Counter Reformation teaching affirmed the status of the Christ child as the personification of perfection and virtue. Murillo’s close observation of children, combined with his aptitude for expression and his subtle handling of paint made his portrayals of Christ especially appealing to contemporary audiences.

Murillo’s life was characterised by very strong personal faith and involvement in religious fellowships: in his mid-twenties, he joined the Confraternity of the Rosary in his parish and in 1662, became a member of the Franciscan Third Order. Working in a city steeped in religious devotion, Murillo’s paintings inspired vigorous religious feeling. For this reason, they were enormously popular during his lifetime. During the nineteenth century, Murillo’s works were held in high esteem by collectors, and several versions of The Adoration of the Shepherds are known. This painting was acquired by the 4th Marquess of Hertford in 1846.

Selected reading:

  • Xanthe Brooke and Peter Cherry, Murillo: Scenes of Childhood, Dulwich Picture Gallery, 2001

  • Ludmilla Kagane, Murillo: The 17th Century Spanish Master, Parkstone Press, 1997