El Greco often made replicas or variants of important compositions. This repeats many of the features of a painting done for Juan de Ribera, patriarch of Antioch and archbishop of Valencia. The quality of this painting is higher than that of the primary version. El Greco’s late work is characterized by a tendency towards abstraction and almost dance-like, restless movement, with the gestures of the shepherds indicating their excitement and wonder at the birth of Jesus.
The Adoration of the Shepherds was painted numerous times by El Greco throughout his career (see Wethey 1962), but especially in Spain, where the subject was exceedingly popular. The subject occurs in pictures meant for private devotion, in paintings intended as altarpieces, and as one of several scenes from the Life of Christ depicted on altarpiece ensembles, or retables (retablos; see the reconstruction illustrated in the entry for Zurbarán’s Battle between Christians and Moors, MMA 20.104). In old Spanish inventories paintings of the Adoration of the Shepherds were often listed as una Natividad, although a "Nativity" is more properly the term for an image of The Holy Family alone in the manger.
The present picture was painted late in El Greco’s lifetime, between 1605 and about 1610. It was probably made as an altarpiece for a private home, but this is uncertain. El Greco sold versions of popular compositions out of his studio, in addition to fulfilling commissions. No less than eight Nativity paintings remained in the artist’s studio at his death in 1614, and six are listed in the 1621 inventory of his son’s possessions, including one that is close in size to this work.
The painter’s notion of a nocturnal Nativity is usually considered to have been inspired in good part by Correggio’s famous altarpiece known as La Notte, of about 1529–30 (Gemäldegalerie, Dresden; see Waterhouse 1930). However, his earliest treatments of the subject in Italy were more clearly influenced by Venetian painters such as Jacopo Bassano, Titian, and Tintoretto. Nocturnal Nativities are not rare in earlier Italian and Netherlandish art, but their prevalence in the late 1500s and 1600s represents a new emphasis on the concept of revelation: the newborn Christ Child, himself a source of heavenly light, is shown to the humble shepherds, who stand for all mankind. There are also numerous precedents for the inscription, "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" (Glory to God in the highest), that is inscribed on the banderole held by the cherubs above. The words come from Luke 2:14, the only gospel book to describe the Adoration of the Shepherds.
Another Version of the Composition: Although the Museum’s picture is thought to have been painted with the help of a workshop assistant, it is distinctly superior in quality to a very similar painting by El Greco which must have been executed somewhat earlier, considering its differences in style and composition. That canvas, of nearly the same size (141 x 111 cm), is the Adoration of the Shepherds in the Colegio del Patriarca, Valencia (see Additional Images, fig. 1), where it was listed in an undated inventory of the mid-seventeenth century. The Valencia version is usually dated between ca. 1600 and the year, 1605, that is inscribed on an engraving of the composition by El Greco’s colleague in Toledo, Diego de Astor. It is possible that the earlier picture was already at the Colegio (seminary) before the death of the institution’s founder, Saint Juan de Ribera (1532–1611). However, it is also possible that the Valencia picture was given to the seminary at a later date, for example by El Greco’s patron Pedro Lasso de la Vega (1559–1637), whose wife was distantly related to Ribera. Alternatively, the painting may have been acquired by Ribera’s successor as Archbishop of Valencia, Isidoro Aliaga (d. 1648), who was well connected with the Archbishop of Toledo. Finally, it is conceivable that the canvas in Valencia is a replica, by El Greco and an assistant, of another painting (presumably of finer quality) that is now unknown.
Differences in design and execution between the Valencia and New York pictures strongly support the general consensus that the Museum’s picture is later in date. Typical of El Greco’s last years is the shift away from figures with some substance and with space around them to a more ethereal, ecstatic and visionary interpretation. Changes in composition, for example the tighter grouping of the main figures in the present picture, were clearly made not only to suit the narrower format but also for expressive effect. The deeper foreground sets the shepherd to the left, the Virgin and Saint Joseph at a greater distance from the viewer, while the three tall angels to the left and the cherubs above them also seem more distant from the viewer’s low vantage point. And yet the closer view in the earlier painting does not yield a greater sense of intimacy. The main figures seem more formal and reserved than in the New York canvas, where the facial expressions, slight changes in gesture, shifts in posture (the shepherd thrusting forward), and the greater agitation in the drapery and highlights all serve to create the impression of a spontaneous emotional experience. One has the sense that an altarpiece with an undertone of doctrinal conformity has been revised into a more accessible image of religious feeling and love.
Other changes between the two paintings may be described as simplifications, as in the bound lamb and other motifs in the foreground, and in the distant view of an angel appearing in a burst of heavenly light to a shepherd and his schematic flock. In the Valencia picture, one angel gestures toward the shepherd, who is more youthful (and individualized?) than his counterpart in New York, and who nearly rubs shoulders with an ox looking up at the cherubs. In the Museum’s picture, the ox is slurred into the space between the shepherd and his lamb, and the angel’s gesture has shifted slightly toward the Christ Child. The ox, a symbol of the new church (and of Saint Luke), is now focused on the Savior, to whom the ass (to the far left in both paintings), a symbol of the former faith, pays no attention.
In his later Adoration scenes El Greco very effectively used the darkness of night and brilliant light radiating from the Christ Child to create completely unified and strongly focused figure groups. Here, the figures are united in a circle around the revealed Son of God, with a space left for the viewer. The ox and bound lamb, like the extended limbs and drapery, flow from one form to the next, in rhythms that join with the flickering light and nervous brushwork to suggest spiritual feeling. The frequency with which El Greco returned to and revised this subject reflects not only Spanish taste and church doctrine but also a personal faith in its significance.
[Walter Liedtke 2014]
Inscription: Inscribed (on scrolls): GLOR[IA] INEXC[ELSIS D]EO / HOMI[NIBVS] / LAVDAMVSTE BENEDICIMV[STE] (Glory to God in the highest. . . . We praise thee, we bless thee [from the Greater Doxology].)
Don Alfonso de Silva Fernández de Hijar y Campbell, 15th Duke of Hijar, Madrid; Don Luis de Navas, Madrid (until 1895); E. Kerr-Lawson, Scotland (from 1895); Dugal McCorkindale, Carfin Hall, Lanarkshire, Scotland (by 1899–1903); his sale, London, Morrison & Co. Nov. 6, 1903, no. 64, ill., as the Nativity; [Eugene Glaenzer, New York (by 1904–5)]
Madrid. location unknown. "Exposición histórico—Europea," 1892–93, no. 100 (lent by Luís de Navas).
Art Gallery of the Corporation of London. "Spanish Painters," April 30–August 28, 1901, no. 89 (lent by D. McCorkindale).
San Francisco. M. H. de Young Memorial Museum. "Loan Exhibition of Masterworks by El Greco," May 17–June 21, 1947, no. 15.
Stockton, Calif. Haggin Memorial Art Galleries. June 24–July 1, 1947, no catalogue.
Worcester Art Museum. "Fiftieth Anniversary Exhibition of the Art of Europe during the XVIth–XVIIth Centuries," April 11–May 16, 1948, no. ?
Leningrad [St. Petersburg]. State Hermitage Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," May 22–July 27, 1975, no. 28.
Moscow. State Pushkin Museum. "100 Paintings from the Metropolitan Museum," August 28–November 2, 1975, no. 28.
Dallas. Meadows Museum, Southern Methodist University. "El Greco, Domenikos Theotokopoulos: A Study in Connoisseurship," September 28, 1989–February 7, 1990, no catalogue.
Jerusalem. Israel Museum. "Landscape of the Bible: Sacred Scenes in European Master Paintings," September 5, 2000–January 2, 2001, no. 9.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "El Greco," October 7, 2003–January 11, 2004, no. 61.
London. National Gallery. "El Greco," February 11–May 23, 2004, no. 61.
Martigny. Fondation Pierre Gianadda. "The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Chefs-d'œuvre de la peinture européenne," June 23–November 12, 2006, no. 1.
Barcelona. Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya. "Grandes maestros de la pintura europea de The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nueva York: De El Greco a Cézanne," December 1, 2006–March 4, 2007, no. 1.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "El Greco in New York," November 4, 2014–February 1, 2015, no catalogue.
Aureliano de Beruete. "Correspondance d'Angleterre: Exposition d'oeuvres de peintres espagnols au Guildhall de Londres." Gazette des beaux-arts 26 (1901), p. 252.
Bernard Berenson. Letter to Isabella Stewart Gardner. July 27, 1904, discusses this painting, which he brought to the attention of the Metropolitan Museum, and, doubting "whether the picture spoke to them," urges Mrs. Gardner to make an offer for it, as he is eager to get it for America.
Miguel Utrillo. "Le Greco." L'art et les artistes 1 (April–September 1905), p. 204, calls it a first idea and not a summary sketch; notes the influence of Correggio.
Paul Lafond. "Domenikos Theotokopuli, dit Le Greco." Les arts 5 (October 1906), pp. 22, 24, ill.
Manuel B. Cossío. El Greco. Madrid, 1908, vol. 1, pp. 351–52, 595, no. 282; vol. 2, pl. 63, notes a similiarity between our painting and the version from Santo Domingo el Antiguo, Toledo [now Museo del Prado, Madrid]; dates it 1604–14.
Albert F. Calvert and C. Gasquoine Hartley. El Greco: An Account of His Life and Works. London, 1909, pp. 167–68, pl. 131, includes it with works of his final period, from 1600–1614.
Morton H. Bernath. "Drei Hauptwerke des Greco in Amerika." Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, n.s., 21 (1910), p. 22, fig. 2.
Charles H. Caffin. The Story of Spanish Painting. New York, 1910, pp. 88–89, as from his "latest period".
Maurice Barrès and Paul Lafond. Le Greco. Paris, , pp. 154, 157.
August L. Mayer. El Greco: Eine Enführung in das Leben und Wirken des Domenico Theotocopuli gennant El Greco. Munich, 1911, p. 81, ill., as a late work.
Paul Lafond. Le Greco. Paris, 1913, p. IV.
August L. Mayer. "Paintings by El Greco in America, Part Two." Art in America 4 (1916), pp. 311–13, ill., rejects Cossío's view that the composition of this picture is similar to that of the painting in Toledo [now Prado, Madrid]; notes the influence of Correggio's "Night" (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) in the treatment of light.
Elizabeth du Gué Trapier. El Greco. New York, 1925, pp. xii, 120–21, 157, pl. 31.
August L. Mayer. Dominico Theotocopuli, El Greco. Munich, 1926, p. 6, no. 19, pl. 37, as a late work.
Thomas H. Benton. "Mechanics of Form, Organization in Painting." Arts 11 (March 1927), p. 147, ill.
Emilio H. del Villar. El Greco en España. Madrid, 1928, p. 112.
Frank Rutter. El Greco (1541–1614). New York, , p. 100, no. 89, dates it 1604–14.
Ellis K. Waterhouse. "El Greco's Italian Period." Art Studies: Medieval, Renaissance and Modern 8 (1930), p. 80, comments on the influence of Correggio's "Night," suggesting that El Greco might have seen this picture in the Farnese residence in Parma; believes Jacopo Bassano, in his Adoration of the Shepherds (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), was likewise looking at Correggio, but could not have directly influenced El Greco in Rome.
Raymond Escholier. Greco. Paris, 1937, p. 111.
M. Legendre and A. Hartmann. Domenikos Theotokopoulos, called El Greco. Paris, 1937, pp. 119, 504, ill., as from his "last period".
Hans Vollmer inAllgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 33, Leipzig, 1939, p. 6, erroneously as formerly in the Dreicer collection.
Harry B. Wehle. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Italian, Spanish, and Byzantine Paintings. New York, 1940, pp. 230–31, ill., observes that this version of the subject most closely resembles the one in the Colegio del Patriarca, Valencia, and should therefore probably be dated well after 1600; believes both pictures are variants of the version from Santo Domingo El Antiguo, Toledo [now Prado, Madrid], from 1577; dates it probably "well after 1600".
Enrique Lafuente. "El Greco: Some Recent Discoveries." Burlington Magazine 87 (December 1945), p. 296, divides El Greco's paintings of the Adoration of the Shepherds into four categories, "Types A–D"; our painting is classified as "Type C" along with the version in Valencia; "Type C" paintings are late works characterized by extremely elongated figures, dramatic lighting and rhomboid compositions.
Walter Heil inEl Greco. Exh. cat., M. H. de Young Memorial Museum. San Francisco, 1947, unpaginated, no. 15, pl. 15 (overall and details), dates it about 1604–14 and considers the Valencia version somewhat earlier.
Leo Bronstein. El Greco. New York, 1950, pp. 106–7, ill. (color), dates it about 1604–14.
José Camón Aznar. Dominico Greco. Madrid, 1950, vol. 2, pp. 738, 743, 1180–81, 1359, no. 54, fig. 567, calls it a late work; sees sources in Correggio's "Night" and also in the Nativities of Bassano; publishes an engraving by Diego de Astor (fig. 916) made in Toledo in 1605 after an "analagous" composition.
Theodore Rousseau Jr. "A Guide to the Picture Galleries." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 12, part 2 (January 1954), p. 4.
Halldor Soehner. "Greco in Spanien." Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, 3rd ser., 8 (1957), pp. 186, 194, dates it 1610–12.
Juan Antonio Gaya Nuño. La pintura española fuera de España. Madrid, 1958, p. 201, no. 1368, dates El Greco's Toledo Adoration [now Prado, Madrid] about 1577 and the present work after 1600.
Harold E. Wethey. El Greco and His School. Princeton, 1962, vol. 1, fig. 157; vol. 2, pp. 26–27, no. 27, classifies El Greco's paintings of the subject into four main types with our painting and the version in Valencia belonging to Type IV, a synthesis of several elements from Types II and III; derived rom Type II are the figures of the Virgin and Joseph moved to the right of the composition, and derived from Type III, the "romantically ruined arches in the background as well as the Raphaelesque gesture of the Madonna" and an angel at the "upper left with arms lifted in a gesture of exhaltation"; states that our painting is the finest example of Type IV and dates it about 1605–10.
Tiziana Frati. L'opera completa del Greco. Milan, 1969, p. 118, no. 133b, colorpls. 37–38 (overall and detail), as an autograph replica of the version in Valencia.
Enrique Lafuente Ferrari. El Greco: The Expressionism of His Final Years. New York, 1969, pp. 78, 130–31, 136, 169, no. 143, colorpls. XVIII–XX (overall and details), asserts that El Greco certainly learned from Bassano to make the Child the luminous center of his Nativities; dates our painting 1610–14 and considers it a replica of the Valencia painting; identifies the latter as the source for the Diego de Astor engraving.
Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, p. 209 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].
Manuel B. Cossío. El Greco. Ed. Natalia Cossío de Jiménez. definitive ed. Barcelona, 1972, pp. 204–5, 309, 357, no. 25, dates it 1604–14.
Jacques Lassaigne. El Greco. London, 1973, p. 143.
Rollin van N. Hadley. "What Might Have Been: Pictures Mrs. Gardner Did Not Acquire." Fenway Court (1979), pp. 36, 48, no. 55, reproduces an illustration of the wrong El Greco Nativity (41.190.17) as pl. 55.
Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 16, 23, 285, fig. 29 (color).
Fernando Benito Domenech. Pinturas y pintores en el Real Colegio de Corpus Christi. Valencia, 1980, p. 272, under no. 96.
Katharine Baetjer. "El Greco." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 39 (Summer 1981), pp. 2–3, 28, 30, 32–34, ill. (color, overall and details).
Denys Sutton. "The Aesthete of Toledo." Apollo, n.s., 116 (September 1982), p. 146.
George R. Allen. El Greco: Two Studies. Philadelphia, 1984, pp. 49–50, pl. 11B (detail), notes that the figure of Saint John with his arms raised in the "Vision of Saint John" (MMA 56.48) parallels the clothed figure to the left in this painting, one of a number of borrowings that to him indicates that the former picture could be a pastiche by the workshop.
Frances Weitzenhoffer. The Havemeyers: Impressionism Comes to America. New York, 1986, pp. 156–57, claims that in 1904 the MMA turned down the chance to acquire from the Havemeyers El Greco's Assumption of the Virgin, now in the Art Institute of Chicago, because they were negotiating for this picture, which they believed was a finer example of his work.
Colin Simpson. Artful Partners: Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen. New York, 1986, pp. 93–94, 295 [British ed., "The Partnership: The Secret Association of Bernard Berenson and Joseph Duveen," London, 1987].
John Bury. "El Greco's Books." Burlington Magazine 129 (June 1987), pp. 390–91, considers Giovanni Battista Pittoni's images of ruins, published as "Praecipua aliquot Romanae antiquitatis ruinarum monimenta", possibly as early as 1561, to be the engravings closest in spirit to the ruins in El Greco's later Adorations, and suggests that the "Prospetibas y antiguedades de Roma" listed by Jorge Manuel in 1621 amongst his father's books, was a set of Pittoni's engravings.
Carlo L. Ragghianti. Periplo del Greco. Milan, 1987, p. 147, fig. 61 (color).
Louisine W. Havemeyer. Sixteen to Sixty: Memoirs of a Collector. Ed. Susan Alyson Stein. 3rd ed. [1st ed. 1930, repr. 1961]. New York, 1993, pp. 155, 325 n. 215.
Maryan W. Ainsworth inSplendid Legacy: The Havemeyer Collection. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1993, pp. 18, 238.
José Álvarez Lopera. El Greco: La obra esencial. [Madrid], , pp. 19, 260, 293, no. 302, dates it about 1608–14.
Enrico Maria dal Pozzolo inEl Greco in Italy and Italian Art. Ed. Nicos Hadjinicolaou. Exh. cat., National Gallery Alexandros Soutzos Museum. Athens, 1995, pp. 136, 438, ill., compares it to the work of Jacopo Bassano.
Albert Boime. "The Americanization of El Greco." El Greco of Crete: Proceedings of the International Symposium Held on the Occasion of the 450th Anniversary of the Artist's Birth. Ed. Nicos Hadjinicolaou. Iráklion, Crete, 1995, pp. 627, 642–43, ill.
Nan Rosenthal. "The Pollock Sketchbooks: An Introduction." The Jackson Pollock Sketchbooks in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1997 [vol. 4], p. 15, ill., illustrates two drawings (I:10v) by Pollock based on this painting.
José Manuel Pita Andrade inEl Greco: Identity and Transformation; Crete, Italy, Spain. Ed. José Álvarez Lopera. Exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Milan, 1999, pp. 157, 411.
Jean Louis Schefer. Sommeil du Greco. Paris, 1999, pp. 46, 107, 134.
José Álvarez Lopera inEl Greco: Identity and Transformation; Crete, Italy, Spain. Ed. José Álvarez Lopera. Exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Madrid, 1999, p. 422.
Gabriele Finaldi inLandscape of the Bible: Sacred Scenes in European Master Paintings. Ed. Gill Pessach. Exh. cat., Israel Museum, Jerusalem. Jerusalem, 2000, pp. 64–65, ill. (color), states that the figure with its arms raised is probably an angel and not a shepherd; dates it about 1610.
José Álvarez Lopera. El retablo del Colegio de Doña María de Aragón de El Greco. Madrid, 2000, p. 94.
Keith Christiansen et al. inEl Greco. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. London, 2003, pp. 214–15, no. 61, ill. (color).
José Álvarez Lopera et al. inEl Greco / colaboraciones . . . Barcelona, 2003, p. 301.
Mary Sprinson de Jesús inThe Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York: Chefs-d'œuvre de la peinture européenne. Exh. cat., Fondation Pierre Gianadda. Martigny, 2006, pp. 28–30, no. 1, ill. (color, overall and detail) [Catalan ed., Barcelona, 2006, pp. 24–27, no. 1, ill. (color, overall and details)].
Natalie Maria Roncone. "Sketchbook III: Jackson Pollock's Homage to the Old Masters." Burlington Magazine 152 (January 2010), p. 30, fig. 36 (color).
Javier Barón inEl Greco & la pintura moderna. Ed. Javier Barón. Exh. cat., Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid, 2014, p. 117.
Jeffrey Schrader inEl Greco & la pintura moderna. Ed. Javier Barón. Exh. cat., Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid, 2014, p. 245.
Pedro J. Martínez Plaza inEl Greco & la pintura moderna. Ed. Javier Barón. Exh. cat., Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid, 2014, pp. 91, fig. 48 (color).
María Cruz de Carlos Varona and José Manuel Matilla. "El Greco and the Prints of Diego de Astor." El Greco: Painter and Master. Exh. cat., Museo de Santa Cruz, Toledo. Madrid, 2014, pp. 208, 217 n. 13.
During restoration in 1948 the original canvas, which measured 56 7/8 x 39 7/8 in., was set into a larger canvas, the overall measurements of which are 64 1/2 x 42 in. Additions of 3 1/4 in. were made along the top, 4 3/8 in. at the bottom, and 1 5/8 and 1/2 in. to the left and right, respectively.
Altogether Wethey (1962) ascribes nine versions of The Adoration of the Shepherds to El Greco and/or his workshop. The Met's painting is related to two earlier autograph versions of the subject. The prototype, in the Colegio del Patriarca, Valencia, of 1600–1605, was engraved by Diego de Astor in 1605. Another version, in the Romanian National Museum, Bucharest, was probably painted between 1596 and 1600 for the altar of the Colegio de Doña María de Aragón, Madrid. A workshop version of The Met's painting, generally dated 1605–15, is in the collection of Félix Valdés Izaguirre, Bilbao.