Adoration of the Shepherds

by Ludavico Mazzolino
Italian, (b. about 1480 - d.1528) Active Ferrare and Bologna
Oil on panel (1524)
SN 46 Bequest of John Ringling 1936.

By Pat Hillerman, February 28, 2000

The Artist
Ludavico Mazzolino may have apprenticed with Ercole de Roberti before he left Ferrare to study in Bologna with Lorenzo Costa. His first documented payment for a fresco was May 20, 1504 and in 1505-07 he received payment for decorative work done for Duchess Lucrezia Borgia in Ferrare Castle. His first surviving work is a dated triptych of the Virgin and Child with SS Anthony and Mary Magdalene (1509) in Berlin. After 1509 he resided in Ferrare, producing small oil-on-panel paintings. His work may reflect Albrecht D rer (mood, atmosphere) who was in Ferrare in 1506 on his way to Bologna, and after 1520 his work reflects influence of Dosso Dossi (landscape, ruined walls). In his last years Mazzolino returned to the style associated with Lorenzo Costa (sensibility, pathos). He died in the plague at age 49, sometime after September 27, 1528. The last recorded date of his work is 1524, the same year as the Ringling attribution.

The Subject
The subject of the painting is the Adoration of the shepherds following the birth of the Christ Child. (Luke 2:16)

The Painting
Although usually depicted in a stable, Mazzolino chose a less humble setting for his Adoration, placing cattle in an arched, cave-like architectural space with the figures of Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child in the foreground, out of doors. (Cattle were sometimes housed in one part of a castle, so this is not a completely inappropriate setting.) The babe is resting on a white cloth which appears draped over the end of Mary's robe and placed on a bundle of straw. The straw suggests a more humble manger. Mary looks down with devotion toward the child with her hands clasp in prayer. Joseph stoops nearby, his hand gesture one of warmth and welcome.

Hovering overhead are four putti or baby angels, looking toward heaven. They hold a banderole or ribbon-like scroll with the inscription "Gloria Excelsus Deo est in Terra pax." Tomory's catalog notes that, "Errors in the inscription probably are due to early and clumsy restoration." The putti suggest the presence of divinity as they mark the division between the spiritual and the material world; a subtle link between heaven and earth.

Three shepherds are in the middle and foreground; two kneeling, one standing. The standing shepherd is looking at the baby intently. One kneeling shepherd appears to be in deep devotion, the other looks toward him, away from the Holy Family. Behind the Holy Family another shepherd looks heavenward. A man and woman stand nearby on a rock, the woman apparently swooning into the arms of the man, who looks upward. The woman seems to have her eyes closed. The rock may represent a symbol of the Lord; however, this may be an "over interpretation" of the symbolism. From an upper architectural space on the left another shepherd hobbles forth, stooping under the weight of a lamb on his shoulders, a reminder that we are looking at the lamb of God.

The architectural setting is an oval perimeter wall, not unlike the coliseum, with small arched rooms facing the viewer. The high back walls fade into the dark, lacy foliage, making it difficult to detect where the wall ends and foliage begins. We see outdoor space on both left and right sides of the adoration scene. On the right, as we look at the painting, Mazzolino suggests atmospheric perspective as he has painted a green landscape fading to misty blue in the distant hills. Also faintly visible are buildings or ruins in the distance. The left side is not defined, suggesting, as was noted in Tomory's catalog, that losses have damaged the painting with time. Tomory mentioned that "losses run vertically down the center due to cleavage in the panel." This, however, is less visible and does not detract from the beauty of the scene.

Two columns rise behind the three shepherds in the middle and foreground, capped by an object suggesting a casket with plants growing from it. Such objects may have been placed there as prophetic reminders of the column to which the adult Christ will be tied and of his death and resurrection.

The head of the Christ Child appears disproportionately small compared to the rest of his body. The thighs and lower trunk are overly "thick." This attempt by the artist to show perspective of the semi-reclining baby as he lay on his cushion of straw is not entirely convincing. Joseph's position seems strained and unnatural, as does that of the woman in the middleground. The overall composition within the walled area is an overly steep perspective which seems to compress the figures toward the forward space.

Characteristics of late renaissance and early mannerism both appear in this painting, such as the strained poses of the figures, some discrepancy between the scale of the figures and the perspective, and the dramatic use of the columns, putti and banderole. Perhaps most noticeable is the asymmetrical placement of figures within the space, the solid architecture of the wall, and the interrelationships of the figures within walled space.

Tomory stated that this painting is "traditionally and correctly attributed to Mazzolino." Paintings by the artist with similiar style and motifs are to be found in the National Gallery London and the Berlin triptych, previously mentioned, dated 1509. The date of the Berlin triptych coincides with Tomory's earlier dating of this painting (1509-1512); however, Dossi's 1520 visit to Ferrare and possible influence seems to be reflected in the painting as noted, and probably was considered when the picture was redated to 1524.

This painting was part of the Holford Collection before it was purchased by John Ringling at auction in 1927.

class notes & assigned readings
Ferguson, Signs & Symbols in Christian Art
Gardner, Art Through the Ages
Grove , Dictionary of Art
Murray, Penguin Dictionary of Art & Artists
Tomory Catalog
Suida Catalog