The Wallace Collection

Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi (P519)
Treasure of the Month - December 2005

Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi (P519)

The Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) was the most imaginative and influential painter of Catholic Europe in the 17th century.

His extraordinary energy is reflected in his prolific output of portraits, landscapes, histories and religious pictures. His powerful narrative style was the perfect vehicle for religious imagery in the service of a Catholic church on the offensive against Protestantism and its emphasis on the written word. His historical and religious paintings are brightly coloured, often highly innovative and remarkable for their dramatic composition, sculptural form and variety of attitude and gesture.

In preparing the compositions of his largest paintings (which were often painted with the help of assistants) Rubens first produced rapid sketches in ink or chalk. The next stage was to paint a small-scale oil sketch of the composition which could be shown for approval to a patron (in which case the sketch is known as a modello). Entirely from his own hand, Rubens’s oil sketches show his mastery of paint at its most accomplished. They have always been prized and admired by artists and collectors. (Their influence in 18th-century France can be seen in two sketches by J-F. de Troy on display in the Dining Room.) The Wallace Collection owns six, all acquired by the 4th Marquess of Hertford, and shown here together as a group.

This is the modello for Rubens’s altarpiece for Saint Michael’s Abbey, Antwerp (now in the Fine Arts Museum, Antwerp. Fig.1), painted in about 1624. Its composition was probably devised in consultation with the Abbey’s abbot, J.C. vander Sterre. It shows the three Magi (traditionally astrologers but later defined as kings) paying homage to Christ soon after his birth (Matthew II, 1-11). Caspar, the oldest, kneels before Christ and offers gold, a homage to Christ’s kingship. Behind him is Melchior, with his gift of frankincense, a homage to Christ’s divinity, while in the centre stands Balthazar holding his gift of myrrh, used in embalming and thus foreshadowing Christ’s death. Rubens, mindful of the need to strike the abbey’s congregation with awe and wonder, depicts the scene as a glorious pageant (even though situated in a humble stable). The Magi and Christ’s family are joined by the Magi’s large retinue of followers, horses and camels (recalling the Magi’s Eastern origins and another Biblical passage: ‘the multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Epha’ (Isaiah LX, 1-6)).

Rubens changed the composition of the altarpiece from that of the modello, making it even grander and more monumental.

Further Reading 

  • Kristin Lohse Belkin, Rubens, London, 1998