Jacopo Tintoretto
The Adoration of the Shepherds

Scuola Grande di San Rocco
Venice, Italy

The artist borrows symbols from outside the traditional Nativity iconography. The bare breast on the woman at left associates her with the allegorical figure of Charity. The cock is from the array of objects from Christ's Passion as seen in Mass of St. Gregory images, and the peacock is a conventional symbol of resurrection and immortality.1 The two birds thus remind the viewer of the death and resurrection of Christ, which is the final cause for his birth, while Charity is the efficient cause.

Another borrowing is the woman in the foreground who looks into a round mirror. This is normally a personification of Pride,2 and as the one figure in the foreground who does not look up to the Nativity scene she could represent those who lose its meaning through self-involvement. But there is ambiguity here. The woman has not quite tilted the mirror in a way that would reflect her face, nor is the face illuminated by it. She could be using it as a sort of periscope in an attempt to get a better look at the Christ Child, who is barely visible to the people below.

Such ambiguities abound in the painting. The turned backs and empty space in the foreground invite the viewer into the picture, yet they distance us as well, for we are among men who can only look on the scene from afar, and the gifts they offer are neither accepted nor acknowledged by the figures above. They, and we, are in the life of shadows where we see only "through a glass darkly" and not "face to face" like the women above on the left (I Corinthians 13:12).

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Photographed at the site by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

1 For the cock and the bare breast, see Dalla Costa, 86. For the peacock, see this paragraph from my page on peacocks and fountains. Also note the cock in this "Mass of St. Gregory" image and the images of Charity in this section of my page on the Frauenkirche Assumption.

2 Here are two examples of Pride with a round mirror:

From the Ducal Palace, Venice. Inscription means "Vanity abounds in me." Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Illustration in British Museum, Royal 19ci, Folio 204. Source: Wikimedia Commons.