“Adoration of the Shepherds”
Bartolo di Fredi
Tempera on wood
69 in x 45 in
Bartolo di Fredi was born in Siena in 1330, and worked in Siena for most of his life. In 1356 he worked in a church in the town San Gimignano, where he painted a great deal of frescoes of scenes from the Old Testament and completed the work in 1367. He worked for a variety of different customers, including the Council of the city of Gimignano, Giacomo di Mino, and even executed some of his works himself. A majority of his artwork was based off religious ideals, and either depicted biblical stories of Jesus’ life or stories from the Old Testament.
Di Fredi was very popular in Siena in his time, and based much of his creations off of the late Gothic style. His figures therefore hold more facial expression and are in various positions, and the largeness and presence of the background causes it to become more prominent in the significance of the painting. Adoration of the Shepherds is a panel that is part of a polyptych that was commissioned for the cathedral of Siena and is the middle of the three scenes that follow the life of the Virgin Mary. Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus are shown in a cave with animals and four shepherds surrounding them, and angels are along the top of the painting announcing the Savior’s birth. The angels are acting as the messengers, which is a common theme that is seen in many stories from the New Testament. The significance of the moment for the shepherds is not lost in this painting because di Fredi painted each of them reacting in specific manners: one shepherd is covering his face with his hand showing his fear, another one has his hands formed as if he were praying, and the other two seem to be gazing up in awe at the angels above them.
There is a large amount of symbolism in this painting – although the people represent who they appear to be, di Fredi adds many small inanimate objects that hold certain meanings. The main angel bringing the news of Jesus’ birth is holding an olive branch, which is symbolic of peace and celebration. Above the baby Jesus there are a dove and a star, which are believed to represent the other two parts of the Trinity and show that the baby is completing the third part. In addition to adding small symbols, di Fredi also uses artistic style to articulate certain messages – for instance, he painted the figure of Mary slightly larger than the others, symbolizing the devotion she has toward her child. Lastly, the artist paints halos around Mary, Joseph and Jesus, showing the godliness of those figures and emphasizing the fact that they are somehow separate and different from the shepherds.
Looking at di Fredi’s art from a critical point of view, it’s easy to see why he was a popular artist during his time. His paintings are simple enough that the average viewer can look at it and understand the gestalt of what he is trying to portray, but the fact that he includes minor symbols throughout his art creates deeper messages that add value and credibility to the painting. I was moved by his art, and I believe that his style and choice of symbolism are what makes his painting effective. Reading Luke 2 while looking at the painting helps me to visualize what the event might have really been like: “And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘do not be afraid, I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:8-12)