Adoration of the Shepherds1612 - 1614. Oil on canvas, 314.4 x 174.4 cm.
On 14 February 1612 Juan Bautista Maíno signed the contract to execute the paintings for the monastery church of San Pedro Mártir in Toledo. Maíno agreed to a period of eight months to make the paintings, which had to portray the scenes and episodes specified by the prior of the monastery. Despite the agreement reached in the contract, the paintings were not completed until December 1614. In the meantime Maíno entered the monastery, becoming a member of the Dominican Order on 27 July 1613.
As a result, this altarpiece is the key reference point in Maíno´s oeuvre. Antonio Palomino based his judgement of the artist’s work on it, describing Maíno as one of the most eminent painters of his day, as can be seen in his works for the said house [San Pedro Mártir], particularly the high altar of that church with the four canvases of the Cuatro Pascuas [four feasts], in which there are excellent nudes and other things painted in majestic life-size. For his part, Ponz singled out the invention, knowledge of chiaroscuro, draughtsmanship and skill in the use of colour that Maíno’s paintings revealed, and he was the first to refer to the subjects depicted: The coming of the Holy Spirit, the Resurrection of Christ, his Birth and the Adoration of the Magi. Together, these are the most important episodes in the life of Christ, from his birth to his resurrection, and thus constitute the great iconic images of the Catholic world and the most important festivals in the ecclesiastical calendar, known together in Spanish as the Cuatro Pascuas.
Closely following the Gospel of Saint Luke (2:7-14), this composition illustrates the moment when a group of shepherds and angels contemplate and venerate the Infant Christ. The scene is set in a ruined building as dusk falls, to judge from the evening light visible in the background. The figures are arranged on three, clearly differentiated levels. The centre of the canvas shows the Virgin and Saint Joseph kneeling before the Christ Child, who lies on a stone block padded with grass and corn stalks. A little way away from this group but level with it, a middle-aged shepherd of robust appearance contemplates the Infant, his right hand holding a kid by one of its horns while his left hand is placed on his breast in a sign of respect, acknowledgement and affection. Leaning over the wall enclosing this central scene and close to Saint Joseph are the heads of the ox and the ass. The upper part of the canvas is filled with a group of angels who watch the scene with interest, while in the lower part two young shepherds recline on the ground, one playing the flute and the one, nearer the viewer, turning his back to the principal scene.
It would appear that this three-layered arrangement was not Maíno’s initial idea. The x-ray of the canvas reveals that the artist originally devised a different composition in which Mary was kneeling with her hands outstretched in a gesture of devotion and humility also conveyed by the position of her head, which was inclined to the right. Her gesture was serious and her gaze lowered towards the Infant Christ, who must have been located on the ground, as in numerous medieval depictions of this scene. In the x-ray the Virgin’s figure is well defined, indicating that Maíno had a clear idea with regard to the composition, in which the principal group occupied almost all the lower half of the scene, leaving the upper part for the rest of the figures. This two-part composition, also found in the work of artists who undoubtedly influenced Maíno such as Savoldo and Caravaggio, would harmonise with the other canvases in the altarpiece. However, such a markedly vertical format would have impeded the development of the other characters in this episode, particularly the shepherds and the angels.
Thus, Maíno abandoned his initial idea for the composition and placed greater emphasis on a markedly vertical presentation, in line with works by Tintoretto and El Greco found in Toledo and its vicinity. The triple structure, with the figures in the foreground surrounded by everyday objects and enveloped in a bright light that creates a strong contrast of volumes and textures, recalls examples of the same subject by Tintoretto and his workshop, both the one painted for the Scuola Grande di San Rocco (Venice) and the version executed for the monastery of El Escorial, which arrived in Spain in 1584. Maíno could easily have seen the latter, as well as various works on this subject by El Greco. The importance assigned to the angels and shepherds in the present canvas can also be found in El Greco’s late versions, both the one for the altarpiece of the seminary of Doña María de Aragón and the one that El Greco painted for his own funerary chapel in the Toledan monastery of Santo Domingo el Antiguo.
The latter canvas must have been well advanced by late 1612. It is a work in which light and colour are crucial in the conveyance of the remarkable parousia. By this time El Greco was an elderly artist working in an outdated style, but he continued to be a key reference point in Toledan painting. Many of the elements used by El Greco are found in this canvas by Maíno, but they are filtered and revised in the light of the innovations that he assimilated in Rome.
Notable among these innovations are Caravaggesque elements together with the use of a bright, enamel-like palette that also looks to Orazio Gentileschi, an important influence for the figure of Mary, whom Maíno depicts as a young woman with an idealised face that becomes the central point of the entire composition. Enriqueta Harris highlighted parallels with Caravaggio and the connections between both Caravaggio and Maíno and the Brescian school. With regard to the angels, who are presented as young men of a distinctly human type, Harris drew attention to examples by Caravaggio, as did Angulo and Pérez Sánchez, including those in the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew in the Contarelli chapel in San Luigi dei Francesi, Rome. These lively and very real figures have abandoned their celestial abode to watch with great interest from a bank of thick, stone-like grey clouds the scene that is unfolding.
Other direct borrowings from Caravaggio are the two shepherds in the foreground, in which Maíno again looked to the repoussoir figures in the Martyrdom of Saint Matthew. There are Venetian precedents for such figures, which Spear considered to be close to paintings by the Bassano and which may also refer to the work of Tintoretto. Their poses do not convey the usual expression of joy and veneration and in this respect, and in particular with regard to the shepherd nearest to the viewer (which Mayer believed was a clear reference to the classical sculpture of the Dying Gaul]), Angulo noted his sadness, even profound sorrow, possibly weighed down by forebodings of the Passion. Emphasising this idea is the presence of the lamb with its legs bound, an image of the Agnus Dei. This redemptive reading has recently been reinforced by Margit Kern, for whom the figures of the sorrowful shepherd (a version of the Roman gladiator), the lamb and the Christ Child create an ascending vision of the redemption of mankind, representing as they do pagan, Hebrew and Christian sacrifice respectively.
Another figure of particular note is that of Saint Joseph, whom traditional Western iconography had relegated to a minor position in this episode. In Maíno’s composition he is shown as filled with tenderness for the Christ Child, leaning over him to take his hand and gently kiss it. The gesture and the youthful depiction of Joseph relate Maíno’s presentation of this figure to the new interest in the Saint following the Council of Trent. The correct Counter-reformatory presentation of this figure showed him as a young man, capable of caring and providing food for Mary and the Infant Christ, and as a protective companion. In De Historia sacrarum imaginum et picturarum by Johannes Molanus (1533-1585), the fact that Saint Joseph takes the Christ Child’s hand signifies that he has fully assumed his role as the Infant’s father. The x-ray of the canvas shows that Joseph was originally depicted as a mature man with a wrinkled brow, flabby cheeks and abundant but greying hair.
The idea of protection is also conveyed by the proximity of the heads of the ox and ass, which are painted with a high degree of realism evident in the depiction of the ass’s harness, revealing Maíno’s concern for the small details and characteristics of the objects that he portrayed. Such an approach explains Justi’s opinion, who considered that Maíno executed this canvas with the patience of a still-life painter.
Also significant is the presence of the steamy breath of the ox, suggesting the warmth and protection that the animal provided. The presence of this beast looks back to medieval depictions of the subject but is also found in El Greco’s versions and was repeated by Maíno in other works on the same subject. This canvas was on deposit with the Museo Balaguer in Vilanova i la Geltrú between 1882 and 1971 (Ruiz, L.: Juan Bautista Maíno: 1581-1649, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2009, pp. 289-291).