The Adoration of the Shepherds is a painting usually attributed to the Italian Renaissance painter Giorgione. Others think it is an early Titian. The two painters were friends and for a time worked in the same studio.
The small dimensions of the Adoration of the Shepherds suggest it was intended as a private devotional work, rather than as part of a church altarpiece. The composition is divided into two key areas: the countryside in the background and the Nativity group in the foreground. Despite the cave-setting, the scene is homely.
The Virgin has a calm, quiet beauty, and the grey hair of Joseph’s domed head is picked out with delicate highlights. Barely visible behind them, the ox and ass stand in a dark cave, as humble men gaze down on the infant. Landscape was Giorgione’s overriding concern as a painter and in The Adoration it is integral to the painting, emphasizing its meditative tone. There are several unexpected elements: the soft yellowish light on the horizon, two peasants under a tree, and clear water flowing in a stream.
The sense of faith and wonder implicit in Giorgione’s painting is at odds with a poem written just over four hundred years later in the midst of the carnage of the First World War. Thomas Hardy’s “The Oxen” refers to a folk legend that Hardy knew as a child. The descendants of the oxen who had witnessed the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem were believed to kneel to commemorate Jesus’ birth every Christmas Eve at midnight, just like their ancestors had done at the time.
The poem was written in 1915 soon after a distant relative of Hardy had been killed at the battle of Gallipoli. Hardy had long since lost his early religious belief, but in this poem he captures the urge to faith that persists – especially at Christmas:
Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.
We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.
So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,
“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.