(b. ca. 1515, Bassano, d. 1592, Bassano)

Adoration of the Shepherds

Oil on canvas, 421 x 219 cm
San Giorgio Maggiore, Venice

The contrast between light and dark is almost obsessive in all Bassano's later oeuvre, along with a Titianesque nonfinished effect. This is evident in the Adoration of the Shepherds in San Giorgio Maggiore, since the theme was traditionally one that lent itself to the quest for symbolic enlightenment. When he tackled this last, prestigious and unexpected commission, complicated by the need to adapt a normally horizontal subject to the dimensions of a tall, narrow altarpiece, the aging Jacopo avoided to fill up the spaces with his usual repertoire of objects and animals. Instead, he invented an empty, rarified, interrogative atmosphere, resolving his structural problems with a three-level hierarchy of lighting. Low down, he swathes the now revealed and adored Child in divine light, in the Flemish style; halfway up, the shepherd with the torch provides a superfluous source of natural light; and at the top, the dark is rent by a narrow, angelic glory and a final shaft of supernatural light that filters weakly across the countryside and lopsided shelter.