Adoration of the Shepherds (Mantegna)

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The Adoration of the Shepherds
Andrea Mantegna The Adoration of the Shepherds.jpg
ArtistAndrea Mantegna
MediumTempera on canvas
Dimensions37.8 cm × 53.3 cm (14.9 in × 21.0 in)
LocationMetropolitan Museum of Art, New York
WebsiteThe Met

The Adoration of the Shepherds is a painting by the northern Italian Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna, dated to c. 1450-1451.


This small painting is generally attributed to Mantegna's youth. It was likely commissioned by Borso d'Este during the artist's stay in Ferrara in 1450–1451.

The work, originally on panel, was subsequently moved to canvas at an unknown date, losing a small section on the far right. It is perhaps mentioned in a 1586 inventory of Margherita Gonzaga d'Este's possessions as a "Prosepio de Andrea Mantegna" ("Nativity Scene of Andrea Mantegna"). By 1603 it was owned by Cardinal Pietro Aldobrandini, who kept it in the Villa Aldobrandini, and then it passed to his descendants. Later it was inherited by the Pamphilj, and then by the Borghese. In 1792 it was sold to the painter-dealer Alexander Day, who took it to London. William Buchanan sold it to Richard Payne Knight at Downton Castle, Herefordshire; his eventual heirs sold it to Joseph Duveen. In 1925 it was acquired from Duveen, New York, by Clarence Mackay; it was purchased for the Metropolitan Museum of Art by an anonymous donor.[1]


The scene is set in an open space, with the Madonna in the middle, adoring the Child while kneeling on a stone step, while to her right St. Joseph is sleeping, and to her left two shepherds pray. St. Joseph's sleep may hint at his role as mere guardian of the Virgin and the Child. The blasted tree on which he leans has born fruit on a single branch; the usual interpretation of this traditional feature is of the mystic renewal of Nature under the new dispensation. Jesus' three-quarters depiction is typical of Mantegna's production.

On the far left is a fenced orchard, symbolizing Mary's virginity. Also depicted are boards of the ruinous stable in which traditionally Jesus was born. On the right is a wide landscape, framed by two steep mountains. Two other shepherds are represented in the right background, together with a big tree somewhat resembling the Calvary Cross, a presage of Jesus' Passion. There is also an ox, a traditional mute witness of the Nativity.

Several flaws in the perspective have induced scholars to assign this work to a date near that of the first frescoes executed by Mantegna in the Ovetari Chapel, in particular to the first scenes of the Life of St. James (1448-1450). The attention to detail has been explained by the influence of the Flemish School, which Mantegna could study in the Este family collection, perhaps through a direct knowledge of Rogier van der Weyden. The grotesque portraits of the shepherds, such as their wrinkles and other realistic details, show the influence of northern European examples.


Further reading[edit]

  • La Grande Storia dell'Arte - Il Quattrocento, Il Sole 24 Ore, 2005
  • Kleiner, Frank S. Gardner's Art Through the Ages, 13th Edition, 2008
  • Manca, Joseph. Andrea Mantegna and the Italian Renaissance, 2006