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Painted Enamel Plaque: The Adoration of the Magi Limoges, France, School of Jean I Penicaud, c. 1530
Detail of Balthazar
Detail of Balthazar
Treasure of the Month - December 2007

Painted Enamel Plaque: The Adoration of the Magi Limoges, France, School of Jean I Penicaud, c. 1530

This small, beautifully painted enamel plaque is lavishly embellished with translucent enamel ‘jewels’ and gilding.

Much of the gilding is now very worn. Exquisite details testify to the plaque’s role as an intimate and evocative aid to private devotion. Many portable enamels depicting Christian subjects were made for personal use in Limoges in the early 16th century. It was the major production centre for painted enamels during the Renaissance.

The Adoration of the Magi has been a perennially popular subject in the visual arts. Depicting one of the major events of the Christmas story, it records the visit of the three Magi, or Wise Men, to Christ’s birthplace. Often depicted as kings, they followed the Star of Bethlehem to find and pay homage to the infant Christ.

Beneath a star-studded sky, the Virgin sits on a bench in front of a dilapidated timber porch, with the Christ Child on her lap. He leans forward in eager anticipation to examine the gift of gold being presented to him by Melchior, the oldest of the Magi. The other Magi, Caspar and Balthazar, wait to present their gifts of frankincense and myrrh, which are stored in magnificent jewelled and footed covered containers. They appear to be discussing their recently completed journey to Christ’s birthplace under the guidance of the star. Balthazar looks up towards the largest star and points behind him, perhaps indicating their route, while Caspar turns to him and points towards the Holy Family’s humble lodging, signifying that they have reached their journey’s end. Balthazar is depicted exotically as a black man with a knotted and twisted cloth headdress beneath his jewelled crown and a dangling gold earring. The collar of his mulberry tunic is inscribed in gold, AVTEM, the opening word from St. Matthew’s account of Christ’s nativity in Latin. Two attendants stand behind him. Caspar’s ermine shoulder cape reveals his high status, like the jewelled crown he wears over his turban. Joseph, observing the scene from the porch, gestures as if taken by surprise.

The scene is infused with symbolic meaning. The ruined buildings signify the demise of the old order with the advent of Christianity. As kings, the Magi represent earthly kings’ acknowledgement of the higher authority of the Church. Their gifts allude to Christ’s attributes and his Passion: Gold for his royalty; frankincense for his divinity; myrrh for his future suffering and death.

Enamel production involves a series of firings at varying temperatures and requires great skill. The metal base to which the enamels were fused was usually copper, but this enamel is painted on silver, like some examples associated with the Penicaud family workshop.

The wings of the frame, which may be contemporary, would have provided stable support when the enamel was in use; when it was not, they could be closed to protect it.