With Christmas nearly upon us, I thought I would turn my attention to my favourite Christian story, The Adoration of the Magi, a theme that has been consistently revisited throughout the history of western art. In this celebrated religious occasion, The Magi refers to the wise men or kings from the East who followed a star directly to the baby Jesus, bringing with them gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Interestingly, the Bible has only one account of the event, and there is no mention of the number of wise men, so it is conjecture that there were three. The interpretation of artists throughout the centuries gives rise to the narrative that we know today, and the story is often embellished by the artists’ personal interpretations, portraits, and even self-portraits.
The 15th century was the golden age of Magi paintings, a perennially popular topic in Renaissance art. During this time, Florence was the hub of artistic excellence and in the Uffizi alone, there are eight Adoration of the Magi works, including paintings by some of the giants in art history such as Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, and Dürer.
So let us explore the Adoration of the Magi in the Uffizi, presented here with an account of the event from Matthew 2: 1–12. (To set the scene, I chose the King James version of the Bible for its rhythmic and archaic language.) Whatever our religious persuasion, an understanding of Biblical stories helps us to appreciate European art.
1 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem,
2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
3 When Herod the king had heard [these things], he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.
4 And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.
5 And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,
6 And thou Bethlehem, [in] the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel.
7 Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared.
8 And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found [him], bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.
9 When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was.
10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.
11 And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.
12 And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.
Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, commissioned 1481 and unfinished. Since November 2011, Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi is undergoing diagnostic investigation ahead of conservation work.
(BTW – you can click on the pictures for a larger image.)
By focusing on these works in the Uffizi collection, it does mean that other great works have been omitted – masterpieces by Giotto, Bosch, Velasquez, Rubens, Rembrandt, Tiepolo, Poussin, Van der Weyden, Brueghel – to name a just a few of the artists who have painted this iconic scene. But Wikipedia has a good selection of links to the works that you can view here. The Adoration of the Magi is such a mysterious story and the art associated with it so rich and vast, an entire blog could be devoted to the topic.