'Adoration of the Shepherds'

Jusepe de Ribera (Jativa, Spain 1591 - 1652 Naples, Italy)

Shepherds surround the Christ Child, held by the Virgin in the manger.  

Artwork details

Medium and Support: Black and red chalk and brown and grey wash heightened with white (with disfiguring oily stains) on paper stuck down onto backing card, which acts as a secondary support and an old mount with a drawn frame of five red ink lines, a band of light tan watercolour wash and a narrow band of gold pigment directly surrounding the drawing .
Dimensions: 16.5 x 19.5cm
Date: First half of the 1640s
Inscribed: Inscribed in black ink on drawing left of centre the number 2 and in red ink 22, at the foot of the old card mount. Inscribed in ink on the back of the old mount five inches from the top: Spagnuoletto.1|
Watermark: Partly visible on the old mount a watermark of a double lined oval placed within a crowned cartouche and three letter Xs in a vertical row. [image|]
Accession No: WAG10851

Ribera lived almost his entire career in Italy, where he was known as ‘lo Spagnoletto’ because he was born in Spain, painted for many Spanish patrons, and considered himself to be Spanish, often incorporating his birthplace into his signature. He spent much of his artistic life in the Spanish-controlled kingdom of Naples, where he formed close links to the Spanish viceroys and painted many altarpieces, mythological scenes and portraits. By the 1640s, the decade during which he is thought to have produced the Walker’s drawing, Ribera was enjoying considerable financial and social success in Naples. He had become one of southern Europe’s leading artists, with a flourishing studio, had bought a palatial house and gardens, and in 1644 his fourteen-year old daughter, Margarita, was married to a senior judge. However, by the beginning of the 1650s he had suffered economic hardship due to a recurrent illness, perhaps a series of strokes, which intermittently prevented him from painting between 1644/5 and 1650. In September 1650 he wrote to a patron, Antonio Ruffo, explaining that he had suffered ‘a weakness in the brain’ (flaqueza en el seso) which had delayed his work.2| His economic problems were worsened by the popular revolt against Spanish rule in 1647 and the subsequent political repression by the Spanish king, which may have isolated Ribera from some of his Neapolitan patrons, and the widowing of Margarita in 1651. His precarious health and partial paralysis was evident in the state of some of his drawings, which by 1650 often showed an unsteady line.

The subject of the 'Adoration of the Shepherds' was one of Ribera's most popular themes in the 1640s. Between 1640 and 1650 he painted at least three versions of the Gospel story (Luke, chapter 2, verses 15-19) in 1640, 1643 and 1650 and had also begun another one sometime between 1641 and 1647.3| The Walker's composition is not very close to any of these. But only on rare occasions are Ribera’s drawings preparatory for paintings. It does share some motifs with the first painting, commissioned in 1640 by the then Spanish viceroy of Naples, the Duke of Medina de las Torres, who later gave the painting to the Spanish King, Charles II. It was then considered to be one of Ribera's finest works. The Walker’s drawing shares the 1640 painting's horizontal format and nocturnal setting in a stable. More importantly the painting shows the Virgin glancing tenderly down at the Christ Child, whom she holds in her arms, just as she does in the drawing. In the other two finished paintings the Virgin gazes upwards towards the heavens and does not hold the Child, who lies in a manger.

As soon as it was painted the Duke's picture was praised. This encouraged Cristoforo Papa, Sicily's Protonotary (who presided over the island’s legal officials) to commission another version for himself in November 1641.4| The Walker’s drawing corresponds in one particular respect with Papa’s commission. He stipulated that the Child should be painted so that rays of light emanating from him would light up the 'beautiful features' of the cloaked Virgin and all surrounding her.5| The warm red chalk which in the Walker's drawing Ribera has manipulated deftly to outline the Child's body, the delicate features of the Virgin and the surrounding human and animal spectators, would seem to have been chosen by Ribera to fulfil these demands. However, Papa was very insistent that his version should be vertical, not horizontal, so that it would match an Entombment by Ribera that he already owned. He also specified other details. In the heavens he wanted a host of cherubs and an angel on a cloud whilst below there should be five shepherds, one of whom should be a woman. The Walker’s composition is not vertical, and never has been, nor does it have an airborne host of cherubs and angels, and has three not five shepherds. So it was probably not drawn in preparation for Papa’s commission.

Ribera’s eighteenth-century Neapolitan biographer, De Dominici, described his usual drawing practice thus:

“In the evening he used to amuse himself in conversation with those who came to his house. And he also used to make drawings of what he would paint the following day, and as soon as he had decided what he wanted to do, he made finished drawings either in pen or with wash and watercolour, and more often with red chalk, although sometimes he used black chalk. And then he painted that figure from a live model."


Many of Ribera's drawings, however, were not created as studies for particular paintings, but seemingly as independent variations on an already treated theme. It is possible that the Walker's drawing is one such variation, executed perhaps in the first half of the 1640s after he had painted the Medina de las Torres commission. Previously it was suggested that the drawing might be datable to the second half of the 1640s. The very long fingers of Joseph and the Virgin were considered stylistically closer to the extraordinarily elongated figures that Ribera drew at the end of the 1640s after he was affected by a series of strokes.7| But unlike the later drawings the Walker's does not show any evidence of the shaky, trembling hand, which by the early 1650s could barely produce an uninterrupted silhouette. Far from being the product of a tentative hand the Walker's drawing displays a fine, carefully applied use of glowing red chalk, almost uninterrupted silhouetted outlines and firm black chalk hatching in the shadows of the stable, combined with a dextrous application of brown and grey washes to deepen the shadows around the warmly lit focal point of the Christ Child. Similar lighting effects appear in a large Adoration by one of Ribera’s great Italian rivals, Guido Reni (1575-1642), installed in the monastery of San Martino, in Naples, in the 1640s.

The one distinctive feature of the Walker’s drawing is that the standing figure of Joseph is totally bald or shaven-headed. No bald figures appear in any Ribera painting of the subject.8| One does, however, appear in Reni’s variant of his San Martino altarpiece|, painted sometime between 1640 and 1642, probably for Prince Karl Eusebius of Liechtenstein (1611-1684).9| Reni’s bald shepherd was based on a terracotta bust entitled 'Seneca' that Reni had sculpted from life and supposedly modelled on a Slav man he met in Rome.10| The bust’s striking realism was popular with other artists and casts of it, as well as copy drawings, did the rounds of painters’ studios according to Reni’s biographer Carlo Malvasia. Reni is the only artist whom Ribera is recorded as copying in a drawing.11| However, as there is no surviving inventory of Ribera’s belongings there is no way of knowing if he had a copy of Reni’s bust that might have inspired this unusual aspect of Ribera’s tender and intimate drawing.

Later history

The originality of many of Ribera’s drawings and his dexterity with both black and red chalk, ink and wash made him a widely appreciated and recognised draftsman in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The Walker’s drawing has an accurate attribution to him, which was probably written on its mount in the eighteenth century, either in Italy when Thomas Coke (1697-1759) (later the 1st Earl of Leicester) bought it whilst on his European Grand Tour in 1712-1718 aged 15 to 21, or after he brought it back to England.12|


Thomas Coke (1697-1759), created1st Earl of Leicester (fifth creation)1744, Holkham Hall, Norfolk; sold Christie’s, London, 2nd July 1991, lot 26; purchased by the Walker Art Gallery with the aid of , The Art Fund and| the Foundation for Sport & the Arts|, as part of the Holkham sale consortium March 1992.13|


  • 'Why artists draw', Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 15 May - 2 August 1992
  • Exhibition of the 'Holkham Consortium Sale Purchases', touring between 1992-93 to the British Museum, London;
  • Birmingham Art Gallery
  • Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
  • Walker Art Gallery
  • National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh
  • Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.


  • W Vizthum and AM Petrioli,'Cento Disegni Napoletani Sec. XVI-XVIII', Florence 1967, no.43
  • J Brown, 'Jusepe de Ribera: Prints and Drawings', exhibition catalaogue Princeton University Art Museum, 1973, p.l32 fig.35
  • P Dreyer, 'I grandi disegni italiani del Kupferstichkabinett di Berlino', Milan 1979, no.64
  • AE Popham and C Lloyd, 'Old Master Drawings at Holkham Hall', Chicago 1985, no.314
  • Christie’s London, 2nd July 1991, lot 26

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  1. The drawing was previously thought to be by an anonymous seventeenth-century Italian artist before Christopher Lloyd’s accepted attribution to Ribera, Popham & Lloyd, 1984, p.16. The handwriting was formerly attributed by A E Popham to William Kent (1685-1748), the painter, sculptor, architect and landscape gardener, but the identification has since been discounted in Christie’s London, 2nd July 1991, lot 26. The number 22 was presumably added by Thomas Pelletier when he drew the red ink frame on the mount in 1720, see footnote 12. The number 2 is not part of the Pelletier system and was presumably added in Naples before it left for England.
  2. Vincenzo Pacelli, ‘Processo tra Ribera e un committente’ in 'Napoli Nobilissimi', 1979, vol. xvii, p.34 n.20 quoting documents published in Nunzio F Faraglia 'Archivio Storico per le Province Napoletane', 1894.
  3. The 1640 'Adoration of the Shepherds' is in the Escorial, near Madrid see 'Jusepe de Ribera 1591-1652', exhibition catalogue Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1992, p.144 cat. No.58. The 1650 painting (Louvre, Paris) is vertical and set in day-time against a landscape. The 1643 painting was formerly in the cathedral in Valencia, Spain, but was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War, though illustrated in Elizabeth Du Gué Trapier, 'Ribera', 1952, p.244 fig. 161. For the abandoned painting see footnote 4.
  4. Gabriele Finaldi, ‘Documentary Appendix: The Life and Work of Jusepe de Ribera’, in 'Jusepe de Ribera 1591-1652', Metropolitan Museum, New York, 1992, pp. 246-248. In 1646 Papa launched a court case demanding either the painting, for which he had made a down payment of 150 ducats, or his money back. During the court proceedings the painting was described as 'already started’ and as having cost more than the downpayed 150 ducats, see Pacelli above, p.29. Finaldi has since suggested that the completed Papa painting might be the one now in the Louvre, see 'Ribera La Piedad', Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 2003, pp. 35-37.
  5. See Finaldi, 1992, pp. 246-7 quoting from the letter sent by Papa in Palermo to Ribera in the vice-regal palace, Naples, on 3 November 1641.
  6. Bernardo De Dominici, 'Vite de’ pittori, scultori ed architetti napoletani', Naples 1742, vol. III, p.18 reprinted Bologna 1979
  7. Red chalk study of two shepherds for an 'Adoration' (16.2 x 12.8 cm., Uffizi, Florence, no. 2189F), with a suggested date close to 1643 (Vizthum and Petrioli, 'Cento Disegni Napoletani Sec. XVI-XVIII', Florence 1967, p. 31 cat. no.43); pen and ink composition drawing (23.5 x 18.7 cm., Metropolitan Museum, New York, Rogers Fund 68.64), dated by Jonathan Brown to 1645-50 (Brown, 'Jusepe de Ribera Prints and Drawings', 1973, cat. no. 33 fig.60); and barely legible scribbled ink sketches of an 'Adoration of the Shepherds' dated by Veronika Birke to 1650 (14.4 x 24.8 cm., Staatliche Museum, Berlin, no. 15772, Brown, no. 38 fig.65, and V Birke, 'Ein Handbuch zur Sammlung Berlin Kupferstichkabinett', 1994, no. VI.45). See also Pacelli, 1979, p.35, for a post-Papa correspondence dating of the New York drawing. None of these relate to any surviving paintings.
  8. The foreground shepherd, who also appears bald, is probably wearing a very faintly delineated cap on the back of his head, similar to that worn by a man in a red ink and wash drawing by Ribera in the Prado Museum, Madrid, (cat.D-6239), illustrated in G Finaldi, ‘Dibujos inéditos y otros poco conocidos de Jusepe de Ribera’, 'Boleti­n del Museo del Prado', 2005, vol. XXIII, p.25 fig. 1.
  9. National Gallery, London, no.  6270. According to Stephen Pepper 'Guido Reni. A complete catalogue of his works', 1984, p.200, no.201, pl.237 the painting remained in Reni’s studio until his death.
  10. Richard Spear, 'The ‘Divine’ Guido: Religion, Sex, Money and Art in the World of Guido Reni', New Haven Yale University Press, 1997, pp. 280, 282 n.17-19 fig. 138. The supposedly original bust is now in the Palazzo Venezia, Rome.
  11. Gabriele Finaldi, 'Aspects of the Life and Work of Jusepe de Ribera', 1591-1652, Courtauld Institute PhD, 1995, pp.249-51.
  12. According to Christopher Lloyd the ‘pasting’ of the drawings to the mounts started in Rome but was continued in England by a Monsr. Pelliter in 1720, Popham and Lloyd, p.9. The mountmaker was identified as the Huguenot Thomas Pelletier, who with his father John, specialised in making frames for mirrors, paintings and drawings between 1692 and 1710 for collectors such as William III.
  13. Purchased along with another drawing, Guercino’s 'Reclining Nude Woman Lifting a Curtain'