The birth of Christ takes place in a ruined temple, symbolising Judaism being superseded by Christianity; its stones would be used to construct the new church. Three shepherds enter from the right; the middle one, carrying bagpipes, is removing his hat, the foremost kneeling and offering a trussed lamb. In the centre the Virgin assists the Christ Child in lifting the sheet to reveal his nakedness, while Saint Joseph rests on the left, with the ox and the ass beside him. The classical column behind the Virgin and Child stands for the decay of paganism, but is also included in the Meditationes Vitae Christi: ‘At midnight on Sunday, when the hour of birth came, the Virgin rose and stood erect against a column’.
Many alterations to the design are visible through infra-red and x-ray examination. Joseph’s head was first painted to the right and then shifted to the left; his right foot continued under his cloak on the right; the dog was lower and smaller; the kneeling shepherd’s profile altered. There is another hand to the right of the Virgin’s, visible with both infra-red reflectography and x-radiography, which seems to be a version of the Virgin’s left hand in a praying position. There is a residue of crimson in this area, which could be her original sleeve (although not quite in the right position). This pose recalls that held by the Virgin Mary in Bassano’s earlier Adoration of the Shepherds, dated c.1533, formerly in the collection of L.C. Wallach. The goat, which is an unusual animal to be included so prominently in this subject, was added along with the tree after the decision was made to paint over a fourth shepherd, and may allude to Christ as the ‘scapegoat’ who carries the sins of the world.
Scholars have generally agreed to date this painting c.1546, but have differed over its relationship to two similar but more mannered paintings by Bassano of the same date: The Adoration of the Shepherds (Accademia, Venice) of c.1545 or c.1547, and Rest on the Flight into Egypt (Ambrosiana, Milan) of c.1545 or 1549-50. The painting shows Bassano’s vision at its most distinctive, yet his inspiration can be traced from a variety of contemporary sources. In the early 1530s he was in Venice in the workshop of Bonifazio de’ Pitati; the meandering landscape seen from a high view point is reminiscent of Bonifazio’s work, although the more frieze-like arrangement of figures is closer to Titian. Bassano is here inspired by a painting by Titian of the same subject known in two versions, one of which, now in the Picture Gallery at Christ Church, Oxford, belonged to Charles I, though it left the Royal Collection with the Commonwealth Sale. Bassano knew the painting through a woodcut, The Adoration of the Shepherds of 1535-40 (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), attributed to Giovanni Britto. Bassano borrowed many elements from the print: the Virgin Mary holding up the cloth to reveal the naked Christ Child; the dilapidated thatch of the stable; the column; the procession of shepherds, the last looking back over his shoulder and out of the picture; and the exact pose and clothes of the shepherd removing his hat (with his left hand, because of the reversal of the print). The detail of the architecture behind the goat and the inclusion of bagpipes derive from Dürer’s woodcut of The Adoration of the Shepherds, from the Small Passion of 1509-11 and the buildings and arch on the left from Dürer’s woodcut of the Holy Family in Eygpt of 1502. The kneeling shepherd is based on a similar figure in Pordenone’s fresco of The Adoration of the Magi (Capella Malchiostro, Duomo, Treviso) of 1520.
In spite of these many influences, this painting shows a direct naturalism peculiar to Bassano in the animals, the maternal relationship between mother and child, the town caught in sunlight in the background (which is Bassano, with Monte Grappa behind it) and the strikingly realistic face of the shepherd at the far right.
This is one of about twenty-four paintings by Jacopo Bassano and his workshop acquired by Charles I, a testament to his popularity in seventeenth-century England. The painting was valued at £35 in 1649 for the Commonwealth sale, less than the £50 put on Bassano’s Journey of Jacob (Royal Collection), suggesting that his pastoral paintings were especially sought after.