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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” by El Greco

Adoracion de los Reyes magos1

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” by El Greco

“The Adoration of the Shepherds” by El Greco depicts a traditional subject which El Greco returned to during the last year of his life. El Greco made this painting to hang over his tomb in a church in Toledo. The elongation of the bodies characterises this masterpiece, as it did, all of the pictures of El Greco’s last years in Toledo, Spain. The infant Christ emits a light which plays off the faces of the witnesses who have gathered to pay homage to his birth. The contrasts between light and dark promote the sense of drama, as do the group of angels which hover over the scene in tribute to the infant Christ.

Doménikos Theotokópoulos, widely known as El Greco, Spanish for “The Greek”, was a painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. The artist normally signed his paintings with his full birth name in Greek letters, Δομήνικος Θεοτοκόπουλος (Doménikos Theotokópoulos), often adding the word Κρής (Krēs, “Cretan”). He is best known for elongated figures and for marrying Byzantine traditions with those of Western painting.

El Greco was born in Crete, which at that time was part of the Republic of Venice, and the centre of Post-Byzantine art. He trained and became a master Byzantine art before travelling to Venice to work; then he moved to Rome, where he opened a workshop and executed a series of works. In 1577, he moved to Toledo, Spain, where he lived and worked until his death. In Toledo, El Greco received several major commissions and produced his best-known paintings.

El Greco’s style was met with puzzlement by his 16th-century contemporaries, but he found greater appreciation in modern times and is today regarded as a precursor of both Expressionism and Cubism. His works were a source of inspiration for poets and writers, and he is considered, as an artist, so individual that he belongs to no conventional school.

The Nativity of Jesus in Art

Depictions of the birth of Jesus as celebrated at Christmas, are based on the narratives in the Bible and influenced by oral, artistic and written traditions. Christian art includes a great variety of representations of the “Madonna and Child”. The Nativity has been depicted in both pictorial and sculptural forms. Graphic forms include murals, panel paintings, manuscript illuminations, stained glass windows and oil paintings. The Nativity scene is also used for altarpieces, many of these combining sculptural painted elements. Sculptural representations of the Nativity also include ivory or wooden miniatures, carved sarcophagi and architectural sculptures.

Did you know?

  • El Greco’s signature, in Greek, may be seen in the lower left corner of this painting.
  • King Philip of Spain did not like the result of the first commission he gave to El Greco, so he offered no further commissions to El Greco. The exact reasons for the king’s dissatisfaction remain unclear. Lacking the favour of the king, El Greco stayed in Toledo, instead of Madrid, where he was more highly regarded.

Explore

Reflections

  • El Greco made this painting to hang over his tomb, is the figure with this back to the viewer, a representation, of the artist himself?
  • What would you like to display at your tomb?
  • What do you think of El Greco’s style?
  • Which is your favourite Nativity painting?

The Adoration of the Shepherds

  • Title:                 The Adoration of the Shepherds
  • Artist:                El Greco
  • Year:                 1612 – 1614
  • Medium:           Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:      Height: 319 cm (10.4 ft); Width: 180 cm (70.8 ″)
  • Museum:           Prado Museum, Museo del Prado

El Greco

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“The habit doesn’t make the monk.”
Spanish Proverb

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Photo Credit: El Greco [Public domain]

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