(b. 1518, Venezia, d. 1594, Venezia)
The Adoration of the Shepherds1578-81
Oil on canvas, 542 x 455 cm
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice
The Adoration of the Shepherds is the first canvas on the outside wall of the Sala Superiore (Upper Hall). In an open scenic illusionism, the shepherds below present their gifts with impassioned and joyous gestures. They are counterpointed by the light and shadow created by the brightness from outside; above, main and secondary figures taking part in the divine event take on attitudes of conscious, almost solemn participation and are dazzled by the light which streams through the cracks between the wooden beams of the humble barn. The two different spiritual moments are underlined also by the different colour quality: without breaking the continuity the lower part is continually struck by reverberations and reflections and at the same time carefully and realistically evokes the animals in the stall, the brightly coloured peacock, the humble tools; the upper part is calmer and more relaxed although the wide chromatic background painting is strengthened by sudden, flashing rays of light.
As so often in the works of Tintoretto, it is difficult to decide whether the horizontal seam on the gigantic canvas inspired him to create this unusual composition on two levels, or whether, conversely, he aimed to conceal the seam with the aid of the composition. Despite their poor surroundings, the Holy Family are remote from earthly regions. The model for Tintoretto's Adoration of the Shepherds may have been Dürer's woodcut from the series of Life of the Virgin or rather an outstanding engraving by Marcantonio Raimondi, made after Dürer's woodcut.
As in Dürer's composition, the rafters anticipate the Cross of Christ. Deliberately, and with admonitory intent, Tintoretto contrasts the dilapidated roof above the Holy Family with the magnificent carved and gilded ceiling beneath which the full membership of the Scuola Grande di San Rocco used to assemble.