Signorelli’s Adoration of the Shepherds (c.1496)

Luca Signorelli's Adoration of the Shepherds, like many paintings of the Nativity, include two very prominent animals, an ox and a donkey, who play no role like this in the Bible. In art's most celebrated renditions of the scene the animals tend to take pride of place, hogging the attention. Why? I have long believed, with more of a hunch than a proof, that they represent the artist looking at his divine "painting", the Virgin and Christ, to represent not just our oneness with other people but with animals too.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Signorelli, Adoration of the Shepherds (c.1496) Oil on wood. National Gallery, London

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The animals look so intently, with such evident interest, that they must represent something more than themselves. The ox, of course, was St. Luke's attribute as well, a potential link here because Luke was both the patron saint of painters and the artist's name.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Signorelli's Adoration of the Shepherds

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It occurred, therefore, that just as Signorelli had placed himself next to Fra Angelico in his masterpiece in Orvieto (left), perhaps he had done something similar here. In Orvieto the two artists are somewhat "outside" the picture, observing Signorelli's masterpiece. Was the ox an alter ego of Signorelli's with the donkey a metamorphosis of Fra Angelico, again looking at Signorelli's "artwork"? The double portrait was painted between 1499 and 1502 while the date of The Adoration is uncertain, normally placed three years earlier, circa 1496, though the sequence does not necessarily matter. 

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Captions for image(s) above:

Signorelli, Scene of the Anti-Christ. Orvieto Cathedral

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I leave it for you to decide but the comparisons at left show Signorelli's eye next to the ox's on the top row, with Fra Angelico's eye next to the donkey's underneath. Both eyes on top are deep-set while both in the lower row bulge outwards, the eyeball protruding from the skull. We cannot be certain but the common belief among artists that mankind must acknowledge its fundamental unity with animals, does make it possible. Besides many similar examples can be seen in the theme Artist as Animal.

In any event, try thinking in similarly audacious ways and all sorts of possibilities - some quite unexpected - will emerge. As others have often said, it is better to risk being wrong on an epic scale than always be right.

Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Detail of Signorelli's Self-portrait in Scene of the Anti-Christ next to the ox's eye from Signorelli's Adoration of the Shepherds (c.1496)

Bottom: Detail of Fra Angelico's eye from Signorelli's Scene of the Anti-Christ next to the donkey's eye from Signorelli's Adoration of the Shepherds (1499-1502)

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Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 04 Feb 2012. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.