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The Adoration of the Shepherds, by Mattia Preti


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About the artwork

This painting illustrates the events described in the Gospel of St. Luke, chapter 2, verses 15 – 17:

‘When the angels went away from them into Heaven, the shepherds said to one another ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us ’ And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.’

In the eighteenth century this picture was in the collection of a Neapolitan nobleman. In the early nineteenth century it became part of the collection of the Liverpool Royal Institution. It was one of a group of four paintings by Preti given to the LRI by a group of eleven ‘public spirited gentlemen’ in 1829. The pictures were presented to the Walker Art Gallery in 1948.

The LRI in Colquitt Street was founded in 1817 ‘for the promotion of Literature, Science and the Arts’.  There was a library, a collection of natural history specimens, geological items as well as a collection of sculpture, plaster casts, paintings, prints and drawings. The great majority of the paintings are now in the collection of the Walker.

The immediate impact of the picture is achieved by the crowded composition of life-size figures. The animation of the two figures in the foreground is particularly striking. There is a strong sense that Preti has recreated the exact moment of their hasty arrival. 

The shepherd on the right, crouches down, joining his hands in a gesture of prayer and devotion.  The shepherd on the left, surely the last to arrive; falling forward, kneeling and removing his cap, as the Virgin Mary covers up the just born Jesus. Other shepherds lean forward for a better view and two more shepherds provide a musical welcome for the Christ child. Scarcely visible in the background, four figures press forward bearing gifts.

Across the night sky an angel flies, trailing an inscribed banner. Preti has created an intensity of dramatic feeling through the skilful use of light, colour and movement. We witness the scene in the stable as an actual event with real peasant people. The picture conforms to the Catholic Church’s view in the seventeenth century, that religious art should combine a devotional image with believable humanity.

Mattia Preti was born in the small town of Taverna in the region of Calabria in the far south of Italy.  Preti had a long working life and there are more than five hundred canvases and frescoes known to be by him. He trained in Rome in the 1630s, where he studied with his brother Gregorio at the Accademia di San Luca. In the 1630s and 1640s in Rome he achieved his first successes.

However, he is traditionally associated with the Neapolitan school. He gained many commissions in Naples after the Great Plague of 1656 wiped out nearly a whole generation of artists. During his seven years in Naples he developed a style that was to influence future generations of painters such as Francesco Solimena, whose picture Diana and Endymion also in Room 3 provides an interesting comparison.

Preti’s particular style of painting was greatly influenced by the work of Caravaggio (1578 – 1635), whose pictures are noted for their realistic detail and the dramatic use of light and shade. In 1661 Preti went to the island of Malta where he remained for the rest of his life. The Knights of Malta elevated him to the rank of Knight of Grace. In Malta he received commissions for most of the Island’s churches and his paintings of the Life of John The Baptist in the church of St. John, Valletta are considered to be his masterpiece.

While he was engaged in this commission, which was to last for five years, he was promoted to the rank of Knight of Justice. Although he lived in Malta he continued to send paintings to patrons in Naples, he also received commissions from all over Europe, especially from Spain and Sicily. He also sent ten major altarpieces from Malta to his home town of Taverna.

The Adoration of the Shepherds was at one time believed to be not painted by Preti and that it was a studio copy of an earlier work, it was even believed to have been painted by his brother Gregorio. However, the most recent expert opinion confirms that the picture is indeed by Preti.