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The Adoration of the Magi

The Adoration of the Kings

Hugo van der Goes (1440-141482). Staatliche Museen Preussischer Kulturbesitz Gemäldegalerie – Berlin. 1473.

Luke does not tell of other figures but the shepherds coming to adore the newborn child. Matthew on the other hand, only tells about a visit by magi. Neither Mark nor John narrates of the early life of Jesus. Matthew’s story goes as follows.

Some wise men came to Jerusalem from the East asking, ‘Where is the infant king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose and have come to do him homage.’ G38

When king Herod heard this he was perturbed. He asked to see the wise men and spoke to them. Herod asked them to find out all about the child.

Having listened to what the king had to say, the wise men set out. And suddenly the star they had seen rising went forward and halted over the place where the child was. The sight of the star filled them with delight and going into the house they saw the child with his mother Mary, and falling to their knees they did him homage. Then, opening their treasures, they offered them gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. But they were given a warning in a dream not to go back to Herod, and returned to their own country by a different way G38 .

In this story of Matthew no mention is made of kings, only of magi or wise men. The magi were astrologers, probably from the Persian court. They had followed a star. They received the name of kings by Christian writers of the third century. The ‘Golden Legend’ says that their names in Greek were Apellius, Amerius and Damascus; in Hebrew Galgalat, Malgalat and Sarachin; in Latin Caspar, Balthazar and Melchior G49 .

The magi are often shown on their journey to Betlehem. The most famous of these images are the frescoes made by Benozzo Gozzoli around 1459 for the chapel of the Medici Palace in Florence. Very many paintings were made of the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ and an iconography developed on the subject. The oldest magus is Caspar. He is usually kneeling before the Virgin and child. Balthazar stands behind Caspar. One finds somewhat further the youngest, the Negro Melchior. The retinues of the Magi are mostly eastern, like the turban Balthazar usually wears. The gifts of the magi are gold, which is a gift for a king as Jesus was supposed to be. There is also the frankincense as a gift, a symbol of the divinity of Jesus. The last gift is myrrh, the balm of the dead, and a sign of the passion and death of Jesus. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were specifically mentioned by Matthew. The ‘Golden Legend’ however, tells in its succulent language that the Magi offered gold to the Virgin to relieve her of poverty, frankincense to dispel the bad odour of the stable, and myrrh to strengthen the child’s limbs and drive out harmful worms. Or the gold was offered as a tribute, the incense for sacrifice and the myrrh represented the burial of the dead so that the three gifts corresponded also to Jesus’s royal power, divine majesty and human mortality G49 .

The three Magi can represent the three continents known in medieval world. Caspar represented the old continent Europe; the black Melchior represented Africa and Balthazar was Asia. The homage to Jesus can also be seen however as a symbol of the submission of the secular powers to Christ. The adoration of the shepherds means that God’s message was brought first and benevolently to the poor, the meek of the earth. The shepherds were the first to be called in by the angels. The magi as kings however came of their own accord to pay homage and they brought gifts of respect. Thus in the scenes of Nativity, the choice of both shepherds and kings has symbolic meaning.

After having shown Hugo van der Goes’ painting ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’ it is natural to turn also to a picture by the same painter of the theme of ‘The Adoration of the Magi’. This last work dates from around 1473. Van der Goes was then not yet deacon of the painters’ guild of Gent in Flanders. He would seven years later move to the abbey of Rouge-Cloître in Brussels. His masterwork of the ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ would be made ten years later and then transported to Florence. Van der Goes was around twenty-five to thirty years old when he painted the ‘Adoration of the Magi’, which can thus be qualified as an early work of the artist. We could expect van der Goes to paint in the full tradition of the van Eyck brothers, of Petrus Christus or even of Hans Memling though this last was a contemporary of van der Goes. Van der Goes had been a member of the guild of painters of Gent since just three years.

This ‘Adoration of the Magi’ is called the Monforte altarpiece because it hung since the beginning of the seventeenth century in the abbey of Monforte de Lemos in Spain. It remains unknown how the picture came there D1 . The painting was originally the central picture of a three-panelled altarpiece. The two other panels are probably lost and the middle panel itself was shortened from a cross form to its present rectangular form. Like the ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ it landed outside Flanders. Van der Goes was a humble artist but his paintings gained international appraisal.

Although van der Goes was still young, he had reached the fullness of his art. The ‘Adoration of the Magi’ is maybe not a work in which is shown the forceful individuality of vision of the Portinari altarpiece, van der Goes’ ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’. But it is already the work of a master artist.

The scene is set in a ruined Romanesque building. In some representation of Nativities, the ruins symbolise the ending of the Old Testament. Just as the old Torah gave way to the new message, Romanesque art was led through International Gothic into the Renaissance’s new style. It had become a fashion in Italy to depict scenes of the New Testament in ancient Roman palaces and van der Goes, although a northern painter, knew already of that fashion. Mary is seated and holds the child. She looks at the hands of Jesus and holds the hands of the child as if to a blessing. But the baby is more interested in the magnificent golden gifts that Caspar has just put on a stone beneath. It is a gold dish filled with gold coins. The dish is in the form of a quatrefoil, a form much used in Gothic France and Flanders. Mary is very attentive and earnest. So is the elderly Joseph. Van der Goes has drawn a miracle of psychological expression in the two faces of Mary and Joseph. Joseph is mild, tender, dreamy, somewhat innocent and naïve. He is almost dressed like a monk, with long robes and up to the monk’s cap on his back. Mary is noble, gentle, but distant. She holds her head as a queen. These expressions of distance were quite standard in Gothic art.

All the attention, all eyes of the figures in the picture go to the child in the centre. So does our view. The child returns the gaze of the viewer. He is the only one who seems to look out of the picture, even if the direction of the eyes is downward to the gold. Thus, the emphasis is also laid on the central meaning of the panel: the homage to Christ.

Caspar kneels in front of Mary; his hands are folded in prayer, but a gesture that is also a common sign of respect in the East. Caspar remains noble, elegant, and courteous. The magi are ambassadors at a foreign court. The splendid red cloak is in the centre of the altarpiece and indeed the adoration of the magi is the central theme. Joseph, Mary and Caspar form the main triangle in the painting. The rest of the picture needed to be less emphasised in order to preserve the harmony and solidity of the triangle formed by Joseph, Mary and Caspar. So, van der Goes has painted the other figures, to the right, in darker tones. Balthazar comes after Caspar. Belshazar’s page hands him a golden vase, maybe containing the frankincense. Balthazar is clad in rich furs and he wears a small golden crown on his headdress. Van der Goes may have thought of him as one of the Baltic merchants that were very present also in Bruges and Gent in his lifetime. Look at the elaborate detail of the curls of the hair of the page. Lastly comes the Negro king Melchior. He brings the balm, myrrh, in a golden pot. Melchior stands at the extreme right and he is the only one to wear a sword. This may be a reminder of the wars and conquests of the Mohammedans who had conquered vast territories around the Mediterranean. Melchior also is richly clad. To brighten up this part of the scene somewhat, van der Goes has brought to that side the red and gold ornamented cloak of Melchior. Finally, the suite of the kings is shown in the right upper corner. Only one figure looks at the viewer, like Jesus. It was thus that sometimes in Medieval and Renaissance times painters depicted themselves. It is a wild guess, but this could be a portrait of van der Goes himself.

The magi represent also the three ages: youth, maturity and the elder man. Traditionally in Flemish paintings, the Negro Melchior is the younger man. Here, van der Goes has also drawn the dark skinned Mohammedan as the younger man. In a way, this makes sense. It marks the conquests of a dynamic Near East and Northern Africa that had gone from victory to victory to win vast territories around the Mediterranean.

In smaller and separate scenes, van der Goes incorporated several additional symbols in his picture. In the upper middle are the shepherds and their flock, called in to Jesus. Shepherds and kings represented the first of the Jews and the first of the gentiles. On the right is depicted the travel of the kings. The journey has led over a bridge and through a Flemish village. The bridge was often associated with the idea of transition from Old to New Testament. On the lower right are iris flowers with their long sword-like leaves. They are the symbols of the seven sorrows of the Virgin that will pierce her hearth. The wild flowers in the lower left were used in medieval times to ward off evil spirits D1 . These flowers are thus a symbol of the powers of Jesus.

The ‘Adoration of the Magi’ is a wonderful panel of a master painter. Full northern Gothic detail is shown and van der Goes had all the genius skill to continue the tradition of the splendid Flemish Primitives. He remained a keen observer of real people however. We feel that van der Goes wants to come closer to us than van Eyck or van der Weyden. He painted the faces as of people we know, and he makes us interested in their lives. Van der Goes attracts our curiosity, even to a page by his elaborate curly head. And he painted a very spiritual scene, sublime, full of respect, as would have been the general feeling at an audience of ambassadors bringing their credentials to a new king. He has not yet gone as far as in the Portinari altar to depict the rough country people, the working monks he knew later from the abbey in which he would retire. This ‘Adoration of the Magi’ was his early work so that he had not yet made the step into innovation of representation for which he needed more maturity of art and mind.

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Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: January 2007
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