The Adoration of the Shepherds – 69/205
Madrid, c. 1596/1597-Valencia, 1628
Oil on cooper
15 x 29.5 cm
Ju Ribalta mano propia (backwards, as it consists of an etching plate, in the bottom left-hand corner at the back
First quarter of the 17th century
Acquired in 1926
The small painting on copper of The Adoration of the Shepherds by Juan Ribalta (Madrid, c. 1596/1597-Valencia, 1628) has long enjoyed critical acclaim; at least one distinguished art historian going so far as to declare it the masterpiece of this short-lived artist. The work was included over twenty years ago in a ground-breaking monographic exhibition devoted to seventeenth-century Valencian painting. This served to draw attention to its uniqueness in terms of its scale and support among the known paintings of the artist and his father, Francisco Ribalta (1565-1628), as well as their contemporaries in Valencia. Since then, it has attracted little scholarly attention.
The work is painted on the flat, un-etched back of a copper plate previously prepared for the production of a print. This represents the story of Saint Anthony (1195-1231) preaching to the fish at the Italian port of Rimini. Legend has it that Saint Anthony, who had found it difficult to convert to Christianity the large numbers of "infidel heretics" in Rimini by means of argument alone, was inspired to go to a coastal river and, standing on the bank between the river and the sea, began to preach to the fish. A great number of fish gathered to hear his sermon, as did local people and heretics. The latter "seeing this marvellous and manifest miracle, were touched to the heart with contrition and they all threw themselves at Saint Anthony's feet to hear his sermon. Then Saint Anthony began to preach on the Catholic faith, and he preached so nobly that the heretics were all converted and returned to the true faith of Christ; and all the faithful remained in great joy, comforted and strengthened in their faith...".
Juan Ribalta's The Adoration of the Shepherds is the only painting on copper by the artist known today. It might have been a one-off work. He evidently took advantage of the opportunity to reuse a copper plate acquired for the production of a print as the support for an oil painting. Only a few other cases of such recycled plates have been documented in the hispanic context. One is the Virgin of Bethlehem by Mateo Pérez de Alesio painted on the back of his own print of The Holy Family. Another is a painting of the Annunciation of The Virgin on the back of a copper plate of the Virgin of Sorrows by Juan de Roelas.
Paintings on metal supports, or láminas, as they were described in the period, were valued by collectors at Court, where Francisco Ribalta resided between 1581-159821. Small format láminas of religious themes appear to have enjoyed a particular role in the decoration of oratories. The oratory of Philip III in the Madrid Alcázar is instructive in this respect; it contained pictures on a wide range of supports, as well as a reduced version on panel of Francisco Ribalta's painting of the Vision of the Blessed Francisco Jerónimo Simó (National Gallery, London) painted in 1612. Paintings on copper were associated with Flemish specialists, but a number were probably imported Italian pictures. Perhaps in response to the latter, the Court artists Eugenio Cajés (1575-1634) and Juan Bautista Maíno (1581-1649) occasionally painted them. Pictures on metal supports by Francisco Ribalta are documented. On the other hand, the dearth of such pictures by Valencian artists of the period known today suggests that these did not form a part of their habitual practice.
The work may not have been an independent framed picture at all; it may have formed part of a piece of furniture. Its size, shape and support are characteristics dictated by its former use as a copper plate for a print. However, the picture could have been let into the steps of an altar of a small chapel or oratory. It could conceivably have come from the base of a small moveable altarpiece or reliquary, a type of work which Francisco Ribalta painted. Although the paintings which occupied the main fields of small altarpieces tended to be of a square or rectangular format, the small images which formed their bases could be of a horizontal shape. A small painting of The Adoration of the Shepherds in a landscape format appears in this location in an altarpiece made up of pictures painted on alabaster by Antonio Tempesta, probably for a Spanish client. On the other hand, the fact that Juan painted on a used copper printing plate in his own possession, rather than one especially acquired and prepared for painting, may be significant in this respect. This makes it more likely, perhaps, that he took advantage of an opportunity to paint a small, independent work.
The Adoration of the Shepherds is obviously not the painting of a beginner. While its date of execution is considered to be c. 1620, its chronological relation to the date of the print is unclear. Despite the small size of the painting, determined, of course, by the size of the recycled copper plate, its technique is consistent with Juan Ribalta's larger works in oil. This may be because he was unused to working on this scale. It may be telling in this regard too that he has not adopted a miniaturist's approach, as was a convention in smallscale pictures on copper. Generally speaking, painters exploited the hard, smooth surface of this support to paint meticulously detailed works, which encouraged viewers to look closely at them, as can be seen in The Adoration of the Kings by Pietro de Lignis, a Flemish artist who worked in Rome. In Juan's painting, he appears to have painted directly onto the copper surface, without a preparatory layer, as is suggested by examination of some areas of surface loss. The artist has handled small brushes with spontaneity and freedom as can be seen in the creamy facture of the landscape and river and the brushstrokes have registered with considerable immediacy on the rigid, non-absorbent surface of the copper. The finesse of the artist's facture is epitomised in the two pieces of straw in the right foreground, made up of a single, thin line of colour and accompanying cast shadow.
Ribalta's representation of The Adoration of the Shepherds is characterised by its relatively "naturalistic" character, so different from the monumental altarpiece by Giovanni Bizzelli in the church of the Patriarca Ribera. Ribalta's large-scale version of the subject at Torrent, Valencia, is a nocturne, in accordance with the tradition that Mary gave birth at midnight, and which afforded artists the depiction of a range of light effects. In his painting on copper, however, the figures are depicted in broad daylight, without halos, heavenly light or divine accompaniment of any kind. The modulation of "realistic" illumination is particularly subtle at the narrative core of the scene, where the Virgin is depicted in half light, due to the shadow cast by the standing shepherd, and seen contre-jour against the well lit farmhouse in the distance.
Ribalta's treatment of his subject may have been inspired by the arrival in Valencia in 1616 of Pedro Orrente (1580-1645), whose reputation was based on Bassano-like, rustic retellings of biblical subjects, of which one of the most appropriate was the adoration of the Christ Child by the shepherds. Although Francisco Ribalta trivialised the painting of his rival, his works may have encouraged his son to cast the scene as a "real" event. The dog in the foreground of Juan's composition -whose character is well observed and which is painted with particular attention to the texture of its white coat- can be seen as a direct reference to the works of Orrente. In accordance with Orrent's approach, the humble figures of the shepherds in Ribalta's paintings are depicted in a relatively dignified light. Two shepherds have arrived at the stable with humble gifts of lambs, themselves symbolic of Christ, an old woman with a chicken and the child with a basket of fruit. There is no equivalent here to the bestial shepherd depicted in profile nearest to Christ of the painting at Torrent. However, Juan may have intended a visual joke referring to the brutish nature of the shepherds in the way that the horns of the ox appear to emanate from the head of the kneeling blonde shepherd.
Juan Ribalta has set the narrative in a realistic-looking open shelter for farm animals, with a farmhouse seen beyond. This vernacular construction consists of brick columns, buttressed by rough-hewn tree trunks, supporting wooden beams and a roof made from lattice work and covered with ceramic roof tiles. Grasses hang from the ceiling of the shelter and the sky can be seen through holes in it. Animals have evidently worn bare the earth floor, while grassy patches grow outside it in the foreground. A masonry wall and arch can be seen at the right, which probably represents a well. Ribalta's concern for the authenticity of this feature can be seen in the changes he made to the profile of the structure behind the ox and St. Joseph; the falling contour of a nondescript mound was changed into the stepped masonry construction of the well. The wooden poles which project from the top of the wall may have been used to lower buckets into the well. A white alcarraza standing on the top of the wall would be a suitable vessel from which humans could drink water; a white saucer before the manger would contain water for the dogs or chickens. The ox and the ass of St. Joseph, traditional in the representations of this subject, are located in this realistic setting. The ox is tethered by a rope attached to an iron ring set into the back wall. It would appear to stand on a step leading up to well, causing its hind quarters to be raised. It may be feeding from the trough, although the impression is given that the animal kneels before Christ, in accordance with the traditional telling of the story of the Nativity. The Christ Child is placed in a straw-filled manger of the animals, which is another traditional detail.
The lucid spatial organisation of the composition, in terms of the location and relative size of figures within an expansive field, suggests that the picture could be enlarged without any loss of coherence. This would apply too to the figures themselves, whose actions are clear and intelligible; this can be seen, for instance, in the pose of the standing shepherd leaning on his staff, with his left foot over his right. In terms of the narrative, Juan connects all of the figures to the central dramatic moment, where the Virgin reveals the newborn child to the shepherds. In order to guarantee the flow and unity of action among the different figures, the artist has perhaps overused pointing gestures; a child points the way to arriving shepherds, a kneeling shepherd identifies the Christ Child to a recently arrived companion and St. Joseph points out the child to two travellers.
St. Joseph is swathed in blue and green timeless "historical" robes; the Virgin Mary is dressed in a plum coloured tunic and blue cloak, which she uses to cover the Child. The shepherds, however, wear contemporary rustic clothes. In this respect, Ribalta appears to have emulated the practice of Orrente, in whose works biblical subjects are updated with lower-class figures in contemporary dress. The central shepherd in Ribalta's painting wears a red rustic montera, whose colour acts as a chromatic lure drawing the eye tothe narrative core of the composition. He wears a long jacket (sayo corto) with attached sleeves and an empty gourd (calabaza) on a thin belt to carry water. Another type of short jacket (jubón) would equally have been identified as the dress of rustic peasants by urban viewers of the painting.
The shepherds are barefoot. This is one of the most obvious signs of their poverty and, in this context, of their "apostolic" virtue as humble followers of Christ. The rustic short trousers (calzones) of the three barefoot figures are also ragged, as is the white cloth on which the Christ Child rests. A hole in the white trousers of the kneeling shepherd, through which the flesh of his thigh may be seen, is suggested by a touch of ochre-coloured pigment; a tear in the crotch of the red trousers of the shepherd carrying a lamb shows his white underclothes. The old woman wears a brown shawl over a long green tunic, with red trousers and shoes. Another figure in red jacket, green trousers and shoes may have just joined the group; while kneeling in adoration, a shepherd identifies the Christ Child to him. Two travellers also have the child pointed out by St. Joseph. One carries a traveller's staff and wears a hooded traveller's cloak of un-dyed wool, the twill and frayed edges of which are created with hatched brushstrokes. His once fashionable openwork trousers are now ragged, the stitching having come adrift, and he wears beneath these grey leggings tied at bottoms with string, and broken shoes. To his right a companion is shown peering in curiosity towards the crib, dressed in a red jerkin and striped, tasselled shawl. [Peter Cherry]
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