ZURBARÁN, Francisco de
(b. 1598, Fuente de Cantos, d. 1664, Madrid)

The Adoration of the Shepherds

Oil on canvas, 267 x 185 cm
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble

In 1638 Zurbarán received order from the Carthusians of Jerez which consisted principally of two parts: five large and two small canvases for the monumental altarpiece of the church, and eight portraits of distinguished members of the order, accompanied by two images of angels with censers, which were installed in a narrow passageway leading to a small room behind the altar where the host was kept. Four of the major altarpiece paintings depict the Infancy of Christ, and for sheer magnificence of colour and spectacle, they are unsurpassed in the artist's work. One of these paintings is the Adoration of the Shepherds.

Zurbarán's painting is populated by rough, plain countryfolk, who have been toasted by the sun and beaten by the weather. In compliance with the strict local rules for religious imagery, all the figures are fully clothed. Zurbarán seeks to establish an atmosphere of quiet reverence and concentrates attention on the upper bodies and faces; anatomical correctness is not essential to this enterprise and therefore he does not attempt to show the legs below the knee, leaving them to be furnished in the viewer's imagination. Instead he dwells on the smallest inanimate details - the woolly fleece of the lamb, matted with caked, dried mud; the rough weave of the multi-coloured mantle covering the bed of straw; the dry, bony shells of the eggs - and makes them comes to life.