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Giorgione, the Adoration of the Shepherds

Giorgione, The Adoration of the Shepherds, 1505-1510, oil on panel, 90.8 x 110.5 cm / 35 3/4 x 43 1/2 in. (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) Speakers: Dr. Heather Horton and Dr. Mark Trowbridge. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

(music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy) Heather: We're here at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. and we're standing in front of this painting by Giorgione. Mark: It depicts the Adoration of the Shepherds. We see two shepherds in the front kneeling with Joseph and Mary in front of the Christ child who lays on the ground. Heather: When you think about a scene of the Adoration of the Shepherds, when the shepherds follow this star, this is the moment when they first recognized Jesus is special. He's divine. That's the moment they're showing here, but we're used to seeing it in a hierarchical, symmetrical way. Mary and Jesus get private place. Here they're pushed to the right and we've got the shepherds in the center and a full [unintelligible] panel taken up by the landscape. Mark: I think what's interesting for this picture and what sets the tone for it is its quietness in their amazement. Heather: Their postures are so focused and so meditative. It makes you think of a people in the Renaissance in Venice who would have looked at this painting and mimicked that posture. They're both guides and they're also imitating what's happening outside the picture. Mark: I like that idea of imitation because we look at the shepherd with the ragged sleeve, the green bodice ... Heather: Because these are shepherds, right? Their clothes are torn, they wear simple shoes. Mark: But look at his hands and then look at the Virgin Mary's hands and you can see that he's actually imitating her. [unintelligible] other his other son and the fingers together, so this idea of Venetians emulating the shepherds in the same way the shepherds have emulated the Virgin Mary. I think this makes that really nice parallel. Heather: And then we've got Joseph who's a little bit off to the side and that's important because Joseph isn't Jesus' father. That role goes to God. Mark: It's almost like he also is trying to figure out the hand placement. His thumbs aren't quite together yet, he too, is participating, but at a remove. Heather: That's interesting. It's like they're learning to worship. This is that first moment when Jesus' divinity is recognized and they're starting to figure it out. Mark: So why don't we talk about the background a bit. Heather: Yes, this gorgeous landscape full of really precise botanical specimens we've got. Laurel in the foreground and all sorts of other trees that are precisely rendered. Mark: This sort of the diffuse evening sunlight that seems to be increasingly low on the horizon striking the sides of those buildings more than it does the top of the tower under construction because there's this play between the preciseness of the details and the sense of atmosphere. Heather: That softness leads to the serenity so that the setting is perfectly married to the subject of the shepherds. This is where they work. This landscape is their world. You can really see how Giorgione's a master with oil paint here, especially in the middle ground. Mark: Especially where the conduits flashes down and there's that little lick of white paint that comes up there. I think when we talk about the advantages of oil paint, one of them is color and if we look at the central group, and we still have to look at these color harmonies, that green of the kneeling shepherd. Heather: But look at how the shepherd is in red and blue and white; and then Mary is in red and blue and white. It's another place where we see Giorgione carefully balancing his picture and creating this union between the holy people and the worshippers. Mark: I think the other place we can see it is that robe that Joseph is wearing, this spectacular robe that defies gravity ... Heather: Yes, like a nice edged curve. Mark: Yeah. It's just absolutely amazing color, that orange. Heather: It shines. Mark: And it's actually a brand new pigment that was being developed and actually marketed by Venetian oil paint sellers. Heather: When you think about an Adoration of the Shepherds as pendant to a scene where you have magi, or the three kings, a type of painting that's full of rich jewels and rich fabrics and all sorts of luxury, this is really something different, and yet these people have nobility. They have recognized something special here. (music) ("In The Sky With Diamonds" by Scalding Lucy)