Adoration of the Magi
This painting is the central part of the predella of the Linaioli Tabernacle. The main panel of the tabernacle shows the Madonna with the Child, while the three predella pictures the Predicament of St Peter, the Adoration of the Magi and the Martyrdom of St Mark, respectively.
This altarpiece was commissioned for the cathedral of Siena.
Bartolo di Fredi was one of the most popular masters in Siena in the second half of the fourteenth century. He maintained a large workshop. He was influenced by both Simone Martini and Pietro Lorenzetti, and following late Gothic inspirations he developed his style on this basis.
The Adoration of the Magi is characterized by a lively dynamism like in Lorenzetti’s paintings. The only tranquil detail is Mary sitting with the Child on the right side. The three kings arrive with a big accompaniment from the left. The big striped hats in the hands of the members of the accompaniment is well known from the St Martin fresco cycle of Simone Martini in Assisi. The background scene is a reference to the long journey of the kings between cities and mountains. The walled city is Siena with the black and white striped Cathedral and the bell-tower. No organic connection can be observed between the foreground and background.
The relief belongs to the San Benito altarpiece.
Alonso Berruguete, eldest son of the painter Pedro, created an important workshop in Valladolid with a number of assistants. The altar for San Benito in Valladolid was commissioned in 1526 and completed in 1532. It was later dismantled and has been partially reassembled in the Museum. The polychromed wood altarpiece was conceived as a drama, and Berruguete’s talent reveals itself as pictorial rather than sculptural.
The Catholic painter Abraham, resident in predominantly Catholic Utrecht, painted spectacular altarpieces in the style reminiscent of sixteenth-century Italian painting. He painted this altarpiece, one of his largest, for the church of the Catholic order of the Jesuits in Brussels, in the Southern Netherlands. Such commissions were extremely rare in the Dutch Republic. Bloemaert’s jubilant colour and festive pageantry befitted the theme and answered the Jesuit’s need for a lively backdrop to their main altar.
The central panel of the Triptych represents the Adoration of the Magi. Several copies of the panel exist in various museums (Philadelphia, Amsterdam, Bonn, Avignon etc.).
The panel displays the adoration of the Christ Child by the three Kings or Magi. The Infant Christ sits solemnly enthroned on his mother’s lap. The Virgin and Child resemble a cult statue beneath its baldachin, and the Magi approach with all the gravity of priests in a religious ceremony. The splendid crimson mantle of the kneeling King echoes the monumental figure of the Virgin. That Bosch intended to show a parallel between the homage of the Magi and the celebration of the Mass is clearly indicated by the gift which the oldest King has placed at the feet of the Virgin: it is a small sculptured image of the Sacrifice of Isaac, a prefiguration of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. Other Old Testament episodes appear on the elaborate collar of the second King, representing the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, and on the Moorish King’s silver orb, depicting Abner offering homage to David.
A group of peasants have gathered around the stable at the right. They peer from behind the wall with lively curiosity and scramble up to the roof in order to get a better view of the exotic strangers. The Shepherds had seen Christ on Christmas Eve, but they frequently reappear as spectators in fifteenth-century Epiphany scenes. Generally, however, they display much more reverence than do Bosch’s peasants, whose boisterous behaviour contrasts strongly with the dignified bearing of the Magi.
The most curious detail of Bosch’s Epiphany is the man standing just inside the stable behind the Magi. Naked except for a thin shirt and a crimson robe gathered around his loins, he wears a bulbous crown; a gold bracelet encircles one arm, and a transparent cylinder covers a sore on his ankle. He regards the Christ Child with an ambiguous smile, but the faces of several of his companions appear distinctly hostile.
Because they stand within the dilapidated stable, time-honoured symbol of the Synagogue, these grotesque figures have been identified as Herod and his spies, or Antichrist and his counsellors. Although neither identification is quite convincing, the association of the chief figure with the powers of darkness is clearly suggested by the demons embroidered on the strip of cloth hanging between his legs. A row of similar forms can be seen on the large object which he holds in one hand; surprisingly, this can only be the helmet of the second King, and still other monsters decorate the robes of the Moorish King and his servant. These demonic elements undoubtedly refer to the pagan past of the Magi.
Behind the stable in the centre, the followers of two of the Magi rush towards each other like opposing armies; the host of the third King appears beyond the sand dunes. The gently rolling countryside contains, in addition, an abandoned tavern and a pagan idol. Even the distant grey-blue walls of Jerusalem, one of Bosch’s most evocative renderings of the Holy City, appear vaguely sinister.
Somewhere around 1475, Botticelli painted the famous Adoration of the Magi for Guasparre di Zanobi del Lama, a work in which the artist also depicted himself. This painting established Botticelli’s fame in Florence, and may rightfully be considered the high point of his early artistic output.
Guasparre del Lama was a parvenu from the humblest background with a dubious past – he had been convicted of the embezzlement of public funds in 1447. He had been working since the 1450s as a broker and money-changer, something which brought him considerable wealth. In order that he might also obtain the high social standing which he lacked, he enrolled in the most prestigious brotherhoods and endowed a chapel in Santa Maria Novella, which he decorated with Botticelli’s altar-piece. Del Lama’s career did not last long, for he soon slipped back into his dishonest business practices.
Del Lama may be seen among the crowd of people on the right-hand side of the picture, an elderly man with white hair and a light blue robe looking at the observer and pointing in the latter’s direction with his right hand. The most famous members of the Medici family are portrayed together with del Lama; controversy rages as to their precise identification, although there is no doubt that the eldest king, kneeling before the Virgin and the Christ Child, is a representation of Cosimo the Elder, founder in the 1430s of what would be dynastic rule by the Medici family over Florence for many years to come. Other members: Cosimo’s son Piero, called the Gouty, as the kneeling king with red mantle in the centre, Lorenzo the Magnificent as the young man at his right, in profile, with a black and red mantle.
A comparison of Botticelli’s painting with his earlier representations of the Adoration (both in the National Gallery, London)) reveals the extent to which the artist had further developed and compensated for his earlier weaknesses. The ground rises gently, so that the faces of almost everyone present can be seen, as can the great variety of postures and gestures that these figures embody. However, Botticelli has combined those involved in an ever more compelling fashion to create a dramatic unity, one concentrated wholly upon the main event. Furthermore, he has moved the central king slightly away from the main axis, enabling the observer’s gaze to fall unimpeded upon the Virgin, who is now no longer in danger of becoming lost in the throng, as was still the case in the London portrayal.
The right wing of the Triptych of the Virgin depicts the Adoration of the Magi.
The most individual characteristic of Bramantino’s style is the use of sombre classical architectural backgrounds, as in this Adoration of the Magi. He may have been influenced in spatial constructions by Mantegna and in colouring by Giovanni Bellini, but if so, these have been assimilated into Bramantino’s personal vision. The painting, whose small size and simple symmetrical composition suggest it was made for private devotion, offers the clarity and serenity typical of this artist.
The elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony ordered this painting for the Schlosskirche (the church in the castle) in Wittenberg. It was once believed to be the central part of a polyptych, with, on the side wings, the story of Job, in Frankfurt and Cologne. However, this hypothesis has already been called into question. The elector of Saxony then donated the painting to Emperor Rudolph II in 1603. An exchange with the Presentation at the Temple by Fra Bartolomeo brought it in 1793 from the gallery in Vienna to the Uffizi.
This altarpiece was probably conceived without the lateral panels, in contrast with the actual practice in Nordic countries, and at variance with the situation of the Paumgartner altarpiece (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Dürer framed and delimited a large space by an architecture composed of arches of a very refined perspective. The three kings arrived at this slightly elevated space from the back and after having climbed two steps. A single figure, sharply foreshortened, followed in their footsteps from the distant background. Only the upper half of his body is shown where he now stands at the bottom of the two steps. He is Oriental and wearing a turban. The heavy traveling bag he holds probably contains precious gifts for the infant Jesus.
The Madonna is clad in azure clothes and cape, a white veil covering her head. She is holding out the infant, who is wrapped in her white veil, to the eldest king. He is offering the infant a gold casket with the image of Saint George, which the infant has already taken with his right hand. This is the only action that unfolds in the principal scene, except for the Oriental servant’s gesture of putting his hand in his bag. All the other characters are motionless; immersed in thought, they look straight ahead or sideways, creating the effect of a staged spectacle set with immobile characters.
The architecture of the fictive ruins behind the Madonna is beautiful and imaginative. Dürer had previously experimented with this design in drawings and engravings. The background is stupendous: the limpid sky, in which the cumulus clouds chase one another; the light Nordic city, climbing up the cone-like mountain; the road bending into the archway where people stop, following behind the three kings. These are represented with much imagination and variety, as far as the fashion and colour of their clothes and the differences in their expressions. In the far right are a lake and a boat.
This imagination and variety continue in the extraordinary depiction of the kings, in lavish clothing, with their precious jewels, and with the beautiful goblets and caskets that they bear as gifts. It is telling here that Dürer was also an expert goldsmith. According to the Nordic tradition, also adopted previously by Mantegna in Italy, one of the kings is a Moor. The physiognomy of the young king with long blond curly hair, standing in the middle of the painting, bears, according to recent interpretation, a resemblance to a self-portrait of Dürer.
Dürer was passionately devoted to the study of animals and plants, which he reproduced faithfully from life. He often distributed these images in his landscape passages, and particularly in his drawings and engravings of the Madonna. We find some here as well: in the foreground, to the right, a flying deer, already known from various watercolours, which here symbolizes Christ; the plantain (plantago major) seen directly behind, whose healing properties were once much appreciated, recalls the spilled blood of Christ; in the foreground, now to the left, on the millstone beside the carnation, a small coleopterum surrounded by a few butterflies, the ancient symbol of the soul, which here may be a symbol of the resurrection.
The panel of the Uffizi represents the richest and most mature actualisation of all Dürer’s altarpieces, before his second trip to Italy, and therefore before the Feast of the Rose Garlands, painted in Venice (Národní Galerie, Prague).
The left side of the painting was cut, originally Saint John was depicted behind Mary, and the motive of hand kissing was in the centre of the composition.
Gentile da Fabriano’s painting is not a geometrically constructed composition. It should be read as if it were the text of a tale, beginning at the top left corner, where the three Magi, meeting at the seaside, notice the star they have to follow. If we follow their course among sloping hills and cultivated fields we can see how they march into Jerusalem under the frame of the central arch, while in the lunette on the right we can see them departing. In the middle distance the direction of their journey changes, proceeding towards us and suddenly the mass of people appears from a deep ravine flanked up by a precipitous rock and a fence. Now we can discern the faces too, and observe the smallest details of garments, arms and harness. Then the crowd, which can pride itself on hunters, noble chargers and exotic animals too, stops at the right-hand corner of the foreground, having reached its destination. Only here does the youngest King’s page remove his master’s spurs; having sunk to one knee the second King is on the point of handing over his gift, whereas the oldest, who has already presented his, is kneeling and kissing the Infant Jesus’ foot. The elegant handmaids of the Virgin are taking delight in the lovely sight.
In a masterly way Gentile da Fabriano launches, moves and stops this huge crowd of people. On the shores of the endless sea, underneath the left upper lunette, the figures of the three Magi on the summit of a mountain are surrounded by an atmosphere of cosmic stillness, while the march itself is exceedingly animated. Lively conversations are in progress, the horses are ambling and the limitless wonders of nature attract the travellers’ attention. The scene of the Magi paying homage (also in the left-hand side) is calm again, emanating profound devotion and meditation. The somewhat dilapidated gate and the cave separate the principal characters from the episodes narrating what had happened earlier and it gives them some quiet in the otherwise overcrowded composition.
The plentiful realism of details which Gentile da Fabriano produced achieved such convincing effects that it approached the Renaissance ideal of representing reality. He was not only able to depict objects accurately, but also every tiny change of facial expressions and the direction of glances establishing links between people. Nor did he forget the spectator, since the donor of the altarpiece, Palla Strozzi, standing behind the youngest King, is looking at us.
Vasari writes about the painting: “In the church of the Innocenti he painted in tempera a much-admired picture of the Magi, containing some fine heads and varied physiognomies of people both young and old, notably a head of the Virgin, displaying all the modesty, beauty and grace which art can impart to the Mother of God”.
There are so many saints in this Adoration that it is not easy to make out the three Magi. On the left, Saint John the Baptist is kneeling and pointing to the Madonna. The orphans of the Spedale are represented by two of the innocent boys who were killed during the Slaughter of the Innocents in Bethlehem, kneeling in the foreground. There are gaping bloody wounds to their faces, arms and necks.
In this Adoration of the Magi, Ghirlandaio’s carefully thought out use of colour is particularly impressive: Ghirlandaio distributes the glowing colours evenly. Mary in the centre is wearing a blue cloak over a red dress. The oldest king kneeling in front of her is wearing a variation of these colours combined with yellow. To the left of Mary, the youngest king holding the valuable goblet in his hand – he almost looks like Saint John the Evangelist – is also dressed in blue, yellow and red. The figure standing on the right edge of the picture wearing an expensive hat repeats this combination of colours, though now the blue and yellow are reversed. In the second figure from the right, wearing the blue hat, the Madonna’s colours of red and blue are visible again, and they are repeated in clothes of the bearded man wearing a turban on the left edge of the picture. Between the Madonna and the man with the blue hat on the right, the artist creates a yellow highlight, though with a weaker blue accent, in the figure of Joseph. This row of figures alone produces a rhythm of colour from left to right: red and blue; yellow, blue and red; red and blue; yellow and blue; red and blue; yellow, blue and red.
The work represents one of Ghirlandaio’s most important “easel” works. Here too the assistants were at work. Indeed, in the scene of the Slaughter of the Innocents in the background, Berenson recognized the hand of Bartolomeo di Giovanni, the author of the stories from the predella.
Toward the end of his career, Joos van Cleve changed his painting style. For example, this later version of the Adoration of the Magi is far less exuberantly ornate and theatrically active than the version of 1517-18 (also in Dresden). The work is tranquil and subdued.
The painting, coming probably from a church in Genoa, was attributed to Dürer in the 16th century.
Since the Early Christian era, the 6 January has been celebrated as the feast of Epiphany, the appearance of God amongst men in the form of Jesus Christ. Mankind is represented by the Three Kings, who are paying homage to the Messiah. The fall of the pagan world began at the same time as his appearance. Leonardo appears to have depicted this moment, so dramatic in human history, in his panel. It remained unfinished because Leonardo left Florence and moved to Milan, though we do not know why he did so. Chemical reactions and soiling mean it is now difficult to read this fascinating panel in detail.
With this painting Leonardo declares his independence from Verrocchio, emerging with a fresh, personal style. Although unfinished, this painting is far more innovative than his previous works. The composition is constructed around a central, pyramidal grouping of figures, and, most significantly, Leonardo here incorporates lights and darks in the underdrawing of this painting.
Even though the panel remained unfinished, the Adoration of the Magi, with its symmetrically composed main group which differs from the traditional linear composition, is now considered one of the most progressive works in Florentine painting. It puts into practice the demands Alberti made of history paintings in a way no other work in its era does. All the figures are involved in the events in the picture. The distinguished kings display their emotions in a more dignified manner than the accompanying figures around them, and the overall number of participants is kept within moderation. The figures are grouped in a circle around Mary and are expressing, with more or less vigorous gestures, their emotion at the first demonstration of divinity of the Christ Child.
The painting also differs from the traditional way of depicting the Adoration in Florence by means of the puzzling scenes in the background, the equestrian battles and an unfinished staircase. This led to the assumption that the Augustinian convent of San Donato in Scopeto, which had commissioned the picture, wanted to use this picture composition in order to convey its own theological interpretation of the Adoration theme.
Around 1600 the dominant influence in Toledo was that of El Greco. The link with the master was strongest in the distinguished painter Luis Tristán, who stressed the Tenebrist aspects of some of El Greco’s work. Tristán’s development was interrupted by his premature death, but not before he had completed work of such merit as the altarpiece in Yepes (1616) and that of Santa Clara de Toledo which was finished in 1623.
The Adoration of the Magi probably formed part of an altarpiece in the Jeronymite Convent of the Queen in Toledo, together with an Adoration of the Shepherds (now in Cambridge), Pentecost (now in Bucharest) and Resurrection (lost). It has the same composition as the Yepes altarpiece, however, the faces of the figures are different.
The picture shows the Adoration of the Magi, the central panel of the altarpiece executed for the St Columba church in Cologne.
The composition of the central panel demonstrates a masterly balance between freedom and discipline. The Virgin and Child are shifted slightly to the left of the middle axis, which appears to run through the central pillar and down into the hat of the kneeling king. In fact, however, even these two details lie slightly left of centre. This left-hand bias is compensated by the figures of the second kneeling king and the third, youngest king, visually strongly accented by his expansively angled pose. The asymmetrical ruins of the stable correspond precisely to the composition of the main group. Insofar as Rogier arranges his figures from left to right in the style of a relief and orients his architecture parallel to the pictorial plane, he remains true to the principles underlying his Descent from the Cross. Here, however, he displays a more sovereign mastery of the organic structuring of the human figure and the partial creation of spatial depth.
The anachronistic little crucifix at the center of the picture anticipates the purpose of Christ’s life on earth, His act of redemption. The donor, with a rosary, kneels on the extreme left, divided from the rest of the scene by a small wall.
Next week, the third and final part with Adoration of the Shepherds
On the Web: Sacred Sunday: The Art of Christmas, Part 1 of 3