The Adoration of the Magi, Limoges, France, workshop or school of Jean I Penicaud, c. 1525 - c. 1530
This small painted enamel plaque was intended as an evocative aid to private devotion. It is richly embellished with translucent enamel ‘jewels’ and gilding. Its owner must have enjoyed its wealth of exquisitely delineated details, from the buildings silhouetted amongst the folded hills in the distance to Balthazar’s exotic gold ear-ring. The sky was originally studded with gold stars, but the fragile gilding has worn away. The plaque was made in Limoges, in south central France, which became established as an important centre for the production of painted enamels in the late fifteenth century. Early production was dedicated to devotional objects.
The Adoration of the Magi depicts a major event in the Christmas story, the visit of the three Magi, wise men or kings from the east, to pay homage to the infant Christ in Bethlehem. They were guided there by the star of Bethlehem. This plaque follows the traditional, compact composition of the subject found in late fifteenth to early sixteenth-century prints and illuminated manuscripts. The holy family is on the left, in front of a dilapidated building. The three Magi, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, are accompanied by two attendants. The Virgin supports her baby son on her lap as he leans forward inquisitively to inspect the gold coins brought to him by the elderly Magus, Caspar. Melchior and Balthazar wait to present their gifts of frankincense and myrrh.
The depiction of Balthazar as a black man became increasingly popular during the fifteenth century, but this is an early example in Limoges painted enamel. Behind the Virgin, Joseph, seemingly taken aback by these magnificently dressed visitors, raises his hands in a gesture of surprise. Careful examination of Balthazar’s collar reveals the Latin word Autem in gold. This may refer to the biblical source for the story, St Matthew’s Gospel, the word being taken either from St Matthew’s account of Christ’s nativity, ‘Now the birth of Jesus Christ was in this wise’ (Matt. 1:18), or from the phrase, ‘When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy’ (Matt. 2:1-12). The scene is infused with symbolic meaning. The derelict building probably symbolizes the old order which the coming of Christianity will supplant. The Magi are sometimes understood to represent youth, middle and old age or the three continents of the old world, Europe (Caspar), Asia (Melchior) and Africa (Balthazar), denoting the universal influence of Christianity. Their gifts allude to Christ’s attributes and his death: gold for his kingship, frankincense for his divinity, and myrrh (used for embalming) for his death. Enamel production involves a series of kiln firings at gradually reducing temperatures. Limoges enamels were usually fused onto a copper base. This plaque has a silver base, a factor in its attribution, since Jean I Pénicaud experimented with ways to enhance the luminosity of his enamels. The frame may have been associated with the enamel in the nineteenth century.
6 and 19 December at 1 pm with Suzanne Higgott, Curator of Glass, Limoges Painted Enamels, Earthenwares and early Furniture.