Enormous popularity of лThe Adoration of the Shepherds╗
(1567) by Cornelis Cort, which is unconditionally evidenced by the large
quantity of replicas and copies, is to be explained through not only its
masterly execution but, first of all, its especially impressive interpretation
of the Biblical events. The miracle occurs inside a majestic ruin of some
ancient stone building, with a huge window opening and two arched entrances on
either sides of the construction. Through all the three bays, the sight opens
onto endless expanses. There is no overhead cover. The dome of heaven serves as
a cupola, illuminated with the divine light by night and filled with an assembly
of hovering angels singing glory to the child.
Working on prints, Cornelis Cort, as a rule, did not replicate the paintings of artists but got inspiration from their preliminary compositions. There is no ground to believe that this very fresco or picture by Taddeo Zuccaro was actually produced by him, and perished later with time. There are few preliminary drawings preserved, that show his idea, formed as John A. Gere thinks not long before the masterТs death. Those sketches are kept now in different collections. Two of them are in the National Museum, Stockholm; the other two are in the Cabinet des Dessins, Musee du Louvre, Paris. The latter are thought to be copies from the lost sheets by Taddeo Zuccaro. Besides, the general scene of лThe Adoration of the Shepherds╗ was rendered by him in the drawing kept nowadays in the Collection of the Devonshire Duke in the Chatsworth Settlement, Great Britain. One canТt help agreeing with those studying the works by Taddeo Zuccaro that some of figures or details of the sketches were shown in лThe Adoration of the Shepherds╗ by Cornelis Cort, 1567. But, if one compares the engraving with the drawing outlining the composition completely (The Devonshire Collection), it makes the fact absolutely clear that Cornelis Cort is the co-author of the general intention; the idea to put лThe Adoration of the Shepherds╗ into a huge collapsed building, where angels appear from the light of heaven flowing through the openings, entirely belongs to him, Cornelis Cort.
The Gospel according to Saint Luke is the only one describing the Adoration of the shepherds: лAnd there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men╗ (Luke 2,8Ц14). The tradition attributed to the shepherds the gifts which they prepared for the Saviour born in the city of David. In лThe Adoration of the Shepherds╗ by Taddeo Zuccaro and Cornelis Cort, they brought the newborn Christ lambs, a shepherdТs flute, and a staff: He was to be the Good Shepherd. With time, the story of the Evangelic event gets more new details. Legenda aurea (The Golden Legend) by Jacobus de Voragine (ca. 1228Ц1298) says that Christ was born in a shed among the ruins of the Palace of David. It was even believed that Mary had placed the Child into a cradle in the Temple of Solomon which had collapsed when He had been born, as we read in the Gospel of Mark, лAh, thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days╗ (Mark 15,29). The Palace of David in Bethlehem as the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem, both united as a single whole, represent the concept of the world before the birth of Christ; their destruction symbolizes the downfall of the power of earthly kings and the end of the old religion. It is evident that where the mighty Judaic king lived and his God ruled his own people, there are now only ruins of the collapsed house covered with grass. The Child radiating light is lying on straw in the cradle. Beyond him, an ox and an ass are seen bowing to him, as the words run, лthe ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his masterТs crib╗ while the people of Israel, on the contrary, never recognized Him as the Messiah (Isaiah 1,3). It is visible in the engraving that the temple of a new faith appeared to shine on the ruins, a faith that opened for man the way to heaven through the window and doors, for it was said лDestroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up╗ (John 2,19).
In лThe Adoration of the Shepherds╗ by Cornelis Cort, one can see the remains of an ancient edifice unusual in form. But here, the question turns out to be: what edifice did the master mean? The iconography of the engraving was analyzed by Arkady. V. Ippolitov. He states that лthe Holy Family are in a round hall╗, лwhose architecture does not bear any allusions to antique ruins or the Palace of David╗, and perceives here the mere лhint at the idea of a round temple popular since the times of the early Renaissance, the idea so much loved by architecture theorists ╗, but embodied, as it seems to him, by Bramante in his Tempietto (1502) in Rome only. Such inferences cause vivid objections. The massiveness of the doorways and even the buildingТs decorative details, not to mention the whole grand construction of the space, are characteristic for architecture of ancient Rome. Since the time of Republic, Rome was famed for its domed edifices for cult and public purposes, i. e. temples, mausoleums, sepulchres, theatres, circuses, and baptisteries in Christian times. But we should note at once that the engraving by Cornelis Cort has the depicted ruins, not of a rotunda, but a polygonal construction. In connection with it, one can recollect the remains of the Temple of Romulus (4th c. A D) on the Forum Romanum whose portal opens onto the Via Sacra. This edifice could serve as a prototype of the one depicted by Cornelis Cort. More probabely is the idea that the engraver meant the ruins of Nymphaeum in the Licinian Gardens (Horti Liciniani) also called the Temple of Minerva Medica, i. e. the Healer (4th c. A D), in Rome, near the Stazione Termini. The articulation of the walls, the placement of the window openings and doorways of the construction shown on the sheet very much resemble those of the immense, half-ruined decagon covered with a round cupola Ц all indicate the Temple of Minerva Medica. For the Dutch artist living in Rome then, it seems to have been a pre-figuration of the collapsed temple where the shepherds had found the Child lying in the cradle. The luxury Nymphaeum in the Licinian Gardens would testify to the resounding glory of the Roman Ceasors. Destroyed, it confirms the transience of earthly pleasures. The ancient ruins were often connected with the Christian conception of Vanitas. This is a visible expression of the impermanence of outward glory when accompanied by emptiness of spirit. The ancient ruins symbolized the uselessness and vanity of pride of this worldТs rulers before the birth of Christ: лVanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity╗ (Eccles 1, 2).
What is the hidden meaning of the window and doorways in лThe Adoration of the Shepherds╗ engraving? An impressive contrast between deep shadow Ц the hopeless darkness of ignorance, and bright light Ц the radiant joy of vision that makes the surrounding world spiritually perceptible, that all is behind the parable. It is explained with a Latin inscription on the lower margins which is repeated in the copies of the 16th century. The text runs as follows: Quid nox est? Adam. Quid lux in nocte? RedemptorЕ (What is the night? This is Adam. What is the light in the night? This is RedeemerЕ). Thus, the deep shadow inside the ruins was perceived as a symbol of the Fall of the forefathers, as the world before Christ suffered for us, and the window and doorways through which the light streams into the dead of night as a symbol of Messiah coming, as a sign of the Redemption of the mankind. With the birth of Christ, the Sun of the Justice rises, pouring out radiance, the trembling, living light that is the true faith, onto the shepherds. лFor ye were sometimes darkness, but now are ye light in the Lord: walk as children of light╗ (Eph 5,8). Through the doorways, the Annunciation to the shepherds in the field╗ and a sheep-fold can be seen. The shepherds who had received the good news found the Child by walking through the doorways on both sides, the same doorways which лthe Lord, the God of Israel hath entered in by it╗ (Ezek 44,2), through the doorways which are the symbol of Christ: лI am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved╗ (John 10,9). Two women can be seen through the window opening behind it. In the late Middle Ages, the two midwives coming to the Christmas used to be depicted. Legenda aurea lets us get to know their names Ц Ezabel and Salomia. After examining Mary, they announced to everybody that the Child had been born by a Virgin. Thereby, the idea of Immaculata Conceptio Mariae (the Immaculate Conception) came into being thanks to these figures of two eye-witnesses of the miracle standing behind the central window, the idea which in the Counter-Reformation period was filled with religious affectation. Sanctified by the birth of Christ, the architecture is full of pathos. The covering of the pagan temple is broken through with the divine light. The window is connected with heaven, from which the angels are descending. The majestic triumphal arch of the Roman Catholic Church rushing towards the skies creates a beaming radiance. For Christians, the great and sacred event recurs every year and everywhere. As for this masterpiece, it takes place in the Eternal City with its Holy Altar. лThe Adoration of the Shepherds╗ engraving by Cornelis Cort was executed by him not long after Taddeo ZuccaroТs death. This is the death memorial, a kind of epitaph to the highly gifted Italian artist upon his untimely death.