Adoration of the Shepherds

The rich combination of red chalk, wash and white bodycolour endows this dramatically lit and highly finished drawing with a particularly vivid pictorial effect of light and dark, known as chiaroscuro. This technique was mastered by Polidoro da Caravaggio, a painter who had several gifted followers in Naples, such as the anonymous draughtsman of this scene depicting the Christ Child adored by the Holy Family and the shepherds. The classical architecture situates the origins of Christianity in the ruins of the antique world.

Red sketch of people and angel
Follower of Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio (Caravaggio 1499/1500-1543 Messina) Adoration of the Shepherds around 1535-40 red chalk and wash, heightened with white bodycolour 242x181mm Samuel Courtauld Trust: Princes Gate bequest, D.1978.PG.354

This Adoration of the Shepherds was formerly attributed to Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio. [1] However, close examination of the drawing suggests that it was made by a contemporary, yet less skilled hand.

The scene depicts the Holy Family and the shepherds in an architectural setting. The Child Jesus, lying in his cradle, forms the centre of the composition, and is flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph on his right side, and two of the shepherds in adoration on his left. In the right-hand corner of the scene an Angel descends towards the Holy Family through the clouds. He comes to announce to the shepherds the glad tidings, carrying the message in a scroll. The Virgin, who is wearing a veil and long cape, is shown kneeling in profile, with her hands clasped in prayer, as she faces the Infant. Behind them, St. Joseph is observing the scene while leaning on his stick. The Infant, placed at the centre of the group, is bathed by rays of celestial light which draw the viewers’ attention to the central and most important aspect of the picture.

The setting of the scene is created by elaborately drawn buildings in ruin and a mountainous landscape in the background. The all’antica style of some of these architectural elements – like the half-broken Doric column on a squared cracked pedestal – shows the artist’s interest in and study of classical architecture.

Overall, the marked expressiveness of the composition and its pictorial quality would lead us to consider Polidoro’s authorship and to date the drawing between between 1524 and 1528, a period in which the artist resided in Naples, following his long stay in Rome.[2] It is in Naples and at this time that Polidoro’s expressive style reached its apex.[3] There, he excelled in integrating the modern style that he had absorbed in Rome with the more intense Neapolitan religious spirit, thus creating an autonomous figurative language. The dramtic use of chiaroscuro, the rendering of light through highlights of white lead, and the great realism of the landscape in the background, painted in white lead, are characteristic features of Polidoro’s draughtsmanship during his Neapolitan years.[4]

However, there are several arguments that lead us to question Polidoro’s authorship. When compared to drawings convincingly attributed to Polidoro, the Adoration of the Shepherds’ anatomic inaccuracy and perspectival hesitancy cast a serious doubt over Polidoro’s authorship. Polidoro’s Transport of Christ to the Sepulchre (1528) in the Uffizi (inv.13396 F) shows a degree of structural harmony that is not to be found in the Courtauld drawing. Moreover, in the Adoration of the Shepherds the overall rendering of the figures diverges drastically from one another. The expressiveness of the composition as a whole is contrasted by the static pose of the figure of the Virgin. Furthermore, none of the figures has convincing body proportions and in some instances, such as the St. Joseph, the limbs are twisted unrealistically, showing a nervous and less experienced hand than that of Polidoro. Such hesitance is demonstrated, moreover, by the rigid perspective grid drawn on the floor, used a pictorial aid.

Even if Polidoro’s authorship should be dismissed, this drawing can be considered of pivotal importance in the understanding of the Southern Italian figurative language at this point in time and its style appropriately resembles that of Southern artists like Marco Cardisco (Tiriolo 1486 – 1542) or Pietro Negroni (Cosenza 1505-1565), Calabrian painters, active in Naples around 1535-1550.[5] It is very well possible to identify the author of the Adoration of the Shepherds as a follower of Polidoro, active in Naples around 1535-40. In those years, in fact, Polidoro’s ascendancy was still essential to the artistic production of the Parthenopean City.



[1] Seilern, A., 1969, 53.

[2] Giusti, P. – Leone de Castris, P., 1988, 43.

[3] Longhi, R., in Paragone, 245.1970, 3-7.

[4] Marabottini, A., 1969, p. 174.

[5] Agosti B. and Di Majo I., 2004, 133.



Agosti B. and  Di Majo I., “Biografie d’artisti nella Calabria sacra e profana di Domenico Martire”, in Dal Viceregno a Napoli. Arti e lettere in Calabria tra Cinque e Seicento, Naples, 2004.


Giusti, P. – Leone de Castris, P., Forastieri e regnicoli: pittura del Cinquecento a Napoli. Naples, 1988.


Leone De Castris, P., Polidoro da Caravaggio fra Napoli e Messina, Milan, 1988.


Leone De Castris, P., Polidoro da Caravaggio: l’opera completa, Naples, 2001.


Longhi, R., “Un apice di Polidoro da Caravaggio”, Paragone, 1970, 245, 3-7.


Marabottini, A., Polidoro da Caravaggio, Rome, 1969.


Ravelli, L., Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio, Bergamo, 1978.


Seilern, A., Italian Paintings a. Drawings at 56 Princes Gate, London, 1969.