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Picture Books of the Past: Pieter Fransz. de Grebber

Enjoy this series of segments highlighting Picture Books of the Past: Reading Old Master Paintings, a loan exhibition of 60+ works from the M&G collection. The exhibit has traveled to The Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C. and the Orlando Museum of Art in Florida.

This intimate, interior setting highlights the wonder of beholding the child whose birth inspired angels to break through the heavens with the news. The dramatic lighting, eye-level viewpoint, and “crowding in” of characters provide an informal portrait of familial love.

Object of the Month: December 2021

The Adoration of the Shepherds

Oil on canvas

Jacques Stella

French, 1596–1657

Sometimes it isn’t what you know, it’s who you know.

Jacques Stella travelled to Florence, Italy, and worked for Cosimo II de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany.  Returning to France, Stella became official painter to Cardinal Richelieu and then Painter to the King (Louis XIII). But these powerful historic personages do not impact his work Adoration of the Shepherds.

Likely inspired by a prototype by Correggio, the first Italian to introduce the supernatural light emanating from Christ and illuminating the nocturnal scene1, Stella has one of the shepherds shield his eyes, foreshadowing Christ’s declaration of Himself as the “light of the world.” But it is not even this master of Italian art that figures most prominently in Stella’s painting.

Rather, it is his lifelong friend and fellow painter Nicolas Poussin whom he met during his 10 years in Rome between his service to the Duke and the Cardinal. Their similar works Adoration of the Shepherds reveal their friendship and knowledge of each other’s art.

Stella’s Adoration contains the obligatory elements in the lower half. But the viewer must read the upper half through the iconography of the lower. Mary, robed in blue, prays; Joseph kneels; and the shepherds wonder. Christ lies in the manger on a white cloth which outlines his extended left hand which, in turn, points directly at a resting lamb. Surprisingly, the baby is not “wrapped in swaddling clothes” (Luke 2:12). He is only diapered. On the far right two figures bear a basket containing two doves, an oddity until one remembers that the temple sacrifice to redeem the firstborn of a poor family was two turtledoves.

In these three ways Stella points to Christ as the Savior of the world: His identification as the Lamb of God, the necessity of a sacrifice for redemption, and the hinted-at burial shroud on which He’s resting.

So far, so good. But in the upper area are both angels and putti. The biblical account clearly states that the angels “had gone away from [the shepherds] into heaven” (Luke 2:15), so these figures show definite artistic license. In the air above his Holy Family, Nicolas Poussin also has putti; his are strewing flowers, a seemingly joyous gesture. However, the flowers are iconographic “flores of martyrum”2; these putti represent the Holy Innocents who by the hand of Herod will be the first martyrs for Christ. Though Stella does not include flowers, clearly his putti also represent the Holy Innocents—given the intimations of Christ’s own martyrdom and the sacrificial doves, classic symbols of innocence.

Stella blends the halves of the work in three significant ways. The two putti gathered around the manger connect the worlds of heavenly bliss and earthly suffering. In addition, the sightline of the front dove-bearer looks heavenward past the basket, connecting the sacrificial doves to the now-redeemed children.  The mountain seen on the right also connects the two worlds. Surely here is Mt. Moriah, where Abraham was to sacrifice Isaac, the innocent child of promise, but was stopped by God who provided “himself a lamb” (Genesis 22:8); and where the Lamb of God would sacrifice Himself, the innocent dying for the guilty, to make heaven possible for fallen mankind.

Jacques Stella, like his friend Nicolas Poussin, tells more than the Christmas story: there is none innocent enough for heaven without the redeeming death of the sinless Son of God. It’s not what you know, it’s Who.


Karen Rowe Jones, M&G Board Member



1David Steel Jr., Baroque Paintings from the Bob Jones University Collection, Exhibition catalogue (Raleigh: North Carolina Museum of Art, 1984), 22.

2De Grazia, Diane. “Poussin’s ‘Holy Family on the Steps’ in Context.” Cleveland Studies in the History of Art 4 (1999): 26–63.


Published 2021

Object of the Month: December 2020

The Adoration of the Shepherds

Oil on canvas, 1625-30, signed with intials: P. DG.

Pieter Fransz. de Grebber

Dutch, c. 1600–1652/53

Pieter Fransz. de Grebber was born in Haarlem around 1600 to an artistic family. His father, his sister Maria, and his brothers Albert and Maurits were all gifted artists. What better place for de Grebber to be born at the beginning of the seventeenth century than Haarlem, the leading center of Dutch painting at that time.

His father Frans Pietersz. de Grebber, a painter and art dealer, taught Pieter initially and later apprenticed him to Hendrick Goltzius. Pieter primarily dedicated his artistic talent to history paintings of Biblical themes. He grew up and remained a devout Catholic often creating paintings for clandestine Catholic churches in Protestant Holland. De Grebber joined with Salomon de Bray in promoting the Baroque classicist school in Haarlem. He eventually joined the Guild of St. Luke in Haarlem and was later elected dean of the Guild. He also contributed to the music and literature of Haarlem as an amateur composer and poet. His artistic style, while uniquely his own, shows the influences of leading Dutch artists Peter Paul Rubens and Rembrandt and even Italian artist Caravaggio, whose style the artists in neighboring Utrecht emulated.

At first glance, this charming scene appears to be a family gathering around its newest member. A rising middle class in northern Europe desired art that related to them and their lives and sought portraits, still life, and domestic and rural scenes. De Grebber’s Adoration of the Shepherds beautifully marries a realistic, contemporary scene with the historical visit of the shepherds to the Christ Child. None of the figures appear in garments typical of first-century Palestine but of those of the seventeenth century furthering the ability of the contemporary viewers to relate to and connect with the subject of the painting. De Grebber intimately lights the scene with candlelight as the shepherds draw near to see the baby. Mary cradles Baby Jesus in her arms, and a fascinated young child gently touches the swaddled Christ under the adults’ careful supervision.

One cannot help but notice the theme of light in this story. When the angels appeared to tell the shepherds the good news, the glory of the Lord shone round about them.” Such glory would surely have startled and even blinded them in the darkness of night. Upon hearing the angels’ tidings and praise to God, the shepherds immediately rushed to Bethlehem where they found Christ in a humble stable.

The Son of God came into a dark world to provide light and hope. After seeing the Light of the World with their own eyes, the shepherds spread the word of His birth and became messengers bearing the news of this Light come to illuminate the darkness in the hearts of men. De Grebber’s painting demonstrates that Christ offers His light to all people, and no matter how dark life may seem, He is there to illuminate and guide those who come to Him.

Rebekah Cobb, Registrar


Published in 2020

Object of the Month: December 2015

The Adoration of the Shepherds

Oil on canvas

Pier Francesco Sacchi

Lombardian, c. 1485–1528

Click on the links throughout the article to view additional artists’ works and reference material.

The Adoration of the Shepherds by Pier Francesco Sacchi, in the Museum & Gallery Collection, can best be understood when one is familiar with the historical context in which the work was composed and is knowledgeable about various aspects of the composition itself.

This interesting work was composed during the Renaissance—a “rebirth” of individualism, natural science, and classical education during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, which ended the medieval era.  Renaissance art reflects this “rebirth” which finally reached its zenith in the early 1490s centering on three central figures: da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael.  This apex lasted about 35 years up until Rome became a Papal State in 1527.

High Renaissance painter Pier Francesco Sacchi was from a Lombard (northern Italian) village called Pavia as indicated by his signature on several of his works.  Later, he moved slightly south to the coastal city of Genoa where he apprenticed under Pantaleo Berengerio and became a member of the guild of painters in 1520.  The few paintings that can be credited to him are all religious subjects.

Sacchi’s The Adoration of the Shepherd, painted in quattrocento-style (meaning a style in the 1400s, which transitioned between the medieval period and the Renaissance), was originally oil painted on a wooden panel.  However, this work is one of two paintings in M&G’s collection that was transferred from its original wood panel to canvas due to decay.

Old Master painters followed a centuries-old, church tradition of painting specific symbols and attributes along with individual saints for the illiterate masses to identify visually the people and related life stories.  This use of symbolism is prevalent in Sacchi’s work.

For example, the classical ruins as the backdrop for the scene are not a stable for animals.  Rather, they reference Antiquity, and the broken arch represents both a bankrupt past and the necessity of the new covenant with Christ. The goldfinch, said to have eaten thorns, foreshadows Christ’s crucifixion; and the lamb the shepherd holds signifies that Christ, the Lamb of God, will offer up Himself as a living sacrifice for mankind.  The worn out knees of the man holding a Renaissance instrument (called a hurdy-gurdy) represent a life of kneeling in prayer.  The bundle of wheat used for Christ’s headrest prefigures His reference to Himself as the Bread of Life.  Christ lying on the ground and the sparrow, considered the lowliest of birds, references Christ’s humility in coming to earth; and, finally, the tree full of leaves in the background symbolizes life, and the bare branches symbolize death.

In order to “read” a work of art, understanding the historical context in which the work was composed and the various aspects of the composition itself are necessary.  M&G’s The Adoration of the Shepherds by Pier Francesco Sacchi affords the perfect opportunity for deeper knowledge about historical culture in light of Scripture.

Heather Osborne, Former M&G Graduate Assistant


Published in 2015

Object of the Month: December 2013

The Adoration of the Shepherds

Oil on panel

Hans von Aachen

German, 1552-1615

At Christmas, our thoughts naturally turn to gifts. Given a choice, would you choose a large package or a small one? Perhaps it would be wise to remember the adage, “Good things come in small packages.” That sentiment is certainly true of M&G’s Object of the Month, a small painting (9.25” x 7”) that is like a precious jewel in a small gift box.

In addition to the Holy Family and the shepherds, the crowded scene includes women, another child, barn animals, the requisite angels tumbling from heaven, and a huge mastiff. Other innovative additions include bagpipes and a shovel. Far in the background the light of the angelic host can be seen illuminating the hillside. The painting is housed in a tabernacle-type frame with decorative gold tooling and stone insets. Tabernacle frames often held large pieces of art; this version captures the architectural features in miniature.

Aachen lived in Italy from 1574–1588, studying the great Italian masters, and in 1592 he became Court Painter to Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in Prague, a prestigious position that entailed diplomatic as well as artistic responsibilities. Rudolf was the greatest patron of the arts of his time, acquiring works by Dürer, Brueghel, and Veronese as well as works of contemporary northern Mannerist artists such as Aachen, Archimboldo, Spranger, and Savery.

The provenance, or history, of the painting can be traced to English ownership in 1834. English collectors of the nineteenth century amassed great quantities of art, much of it available because of wars and unrest in Europe. This work was part of an 1834 bequest to the Fitzwilliam Museum of Cambridge University; they retained ownership until 1959 when it was sold at Sotheby’s and acquired by the museum.

Anne Short, Former Research Supervisor


Published in 2013