Made in Spain during the 16th century, these two important altarpiece panels are made of wood carved in bas-reliefs, polychromed and gilded “a l’estofado”. This type of work required the use of different precise skills requiring collaboration between different artists, attached to different guilds. Indeed, if the sculpted base was made in a specialized workshop, the application of the paint was done by different painters. They divided their work between the realization of the skin and that of the clothes, according to the technique of the estofado, consisting in affixing gold sheets which were then covered with several layers of painting to be finally scraped to reveal gilded elements. Finally, the last step was the “encarnaciòn”, a technique that consists of an important pictorial work allowing to “give life” to the work. By this division of tasks and this precision of creation, our pieces testify perfectly to the plastic apogee of which Charles Davillier, considered the “rediscoverer” of Spanish art in the 19th century, is part. Indeed, in his book The Decorative Arts in Spain in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance in 1879, he wrote: “The art of woodcarving was practiced in Spain from the Middle Ages, but it was especially from the fifteenth century that it shone brightly.”
Beyond the technical aspect, these altarpieces are distinguished by their iconography. They present two adornments, on the one hand that of the shepherds to the baby Jesus and on the other that of the Magi. Our two scenes take place in an architectural context, with a background of semicircular arches of great sobriety, recalling the simplicity of the stable in which Jesus was born. The first panel shows the shepherds surrounding the cradle of Christ, overlooked by the Virgin, St. Joseph, the donkey and the ox. Two of them, in the foreground, are crouching, while a third, to the right of the composition, removes his hat in deference. Finally, on the left is an angel, probably the one mentioned in the Gospel according to Saint Luke who warns the shepherds of the birth of Jesus. He is represented as a musician angel, playing the bagpipe, a symbolic instrument of musical spirituality elevating the human soul.
On the second panel, the Magi surround Christ. These arrived about ten days after Christmas, on January 7, Jesus was no longer a newborn, but was sitting on the Virgin’s lap, next to Joseph in prayer. The three wise men wear luxurious clothes and wear turbans or crowns (placed at the feet of the holy family), in reference to their status. They are represented according to the custom offering the traditional present. Balthazar, on the left of the composition, brings gold, Gaspard, on his left, myrrh (a perfume used to embalm the dead in antiquity) and finally, in the foreground Melchior incense, symbolizing respectively royalty, the mortal condition and divine essence. In the upper right corner is the shepherd’s star that guided the two groups to Christ. These two biblical episodes are major in Christian theology because they testify to the recognition of the Messiah, both by the humblest of humans, the shepherds, and by kings from the East. According to the gospels of St. Matthew (2:1-12) and Luke (2:8-20), these two diametrically opposed social categories are guided by the same star to the manger in Nazareth, to pay homage to the “king of the Jews. Their place on an altarpiece, certainly narrating the story of Christ’s life, offers the believer the certainty of a proximity to God, and by extension of an accessibility of divine love. Jesus, born a man to save humanity, his recognition by his peers reinforces his sacrifice.