The Adoration of the Magi

Wallace Connections

The Adoration of the Magi


In the first month of 2021, we focussed #WallaceConnections on the story behind the representation of the Adoration of the Magi. A popular Christian theme, its message of a world united in the hope of a better future seemed appropriate at the start of this New Year.

Boxwood triptych with The Adoration of the Magi, Adam Dircksz and workshop, The Netherlands, c. 1500–30 (S279)

The intricacy of this miniature boxwood Gothic altarpiece draws us in, inviting us to explore the lively scenes unfolding in its interior, and to focus our attention on the central scene, the Adoration of the Magi.

Told in the Gospel of Matthew, this scene has often been taken to symbolise all nations’ allegiance to Christianity. However, the Biblical passage does not specify the name or the number of Magi who visited Christ on Epiphany day. The Gospel only mentions a group of astrologers, described as Magi, arriving from the East to worship the child born under the influence of an exceptional star.

As an homage they brought gold, to celebrate his kingship, frankincense, and myrrh, a symbol of his future suffering. Because there were three presents, it was assumed that must have been three Magi, as we see carved in this Gothic triptych.

- Ada de Wit, Curator of Works of Art and Sculpture

Enamel plaque with The Adoration of the Magi, school of Jean I Pénicaud, Limoges, France, c. 1525–30 (C575)

In the first month of the year our #WallaceConnections series focuses on the story behind the representation of the Adoration of the Magi. A popular Christian theme, its message of a world united in the hope of a better future seems appropriate at the beginning of 2021.

This richly decorated enamel depicts Caspar, Melchior, and Balthazar offering their presents to Christ. Though this is a scene we are now familiar with, the depiction of Balthazar here is noteworthy as it is an early example of his representation as a black magus in Limoges painted enamel.

In the eighth century, Balthazar was first described as being a black magus. From this point onwards, the Magi were sometimes interpreted as representing the three continents of the Old World. Europe and Asia were at first interchangeably represented by either Melchior or Caspar, while Balthazar represented Africa.

The Magi were also often depicted as three men of different ages. As we see here, the kneeling magus is the eldest, while the standing man wearing ermine is middle-aged. Whether they are either Melchior or Caspar is discussed in contemporary sources. However, Balthazar can firmly be identified as the young man wearing an exotic gold earring, a common attribute of the black magus and symbol of his African origin. This diversity in ages and continents denoted the universal influence of Christianity.

- Suzanne Higgott, Curator of Glass, Limoges Painted Enamels, Earthenware and Renaissance Furniture

Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1624 (P519)

In the four occasions in which Rubens depicted The Adoration of the Magi, the black king was the figure that underwent most changes. In this sketch for a larger altarpiece, Rubens drew inspiration for his powerful, richly dressed Balthasar from various sources. The clothes are based on a real Turkish outfit borrowed from a merchant friend while his facial features relate to those of the sixteenth-century Berber prince Mulay Ahmad, whose portrait Rubens had copied ten years earlier. A similar figure had already been introduced about eight years earlier in another version now in Lyon, wearing a bright yellow tunic.

A portrait of a man holding a sword
Peter Paul Rubens, after Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen, Mulay Ahmad, c. 1613–14. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (40.2).

In another sketch in the Wallace Collection, Rubens represented Balthasar as a black African man, drawing on another tradition which identified the magus as an Ethiopian king, probably a reference to the Queen of Sheba’s origins. Since Antiquity, Ethiopia was a territory described to be both east and west but equally in the south of Africa.

A painting of the Adoration of the Magi
Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1633 (P521)
A painting of the Adoration of the Magi
Peter Paul Rubens, The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1616–18. Musée des Beaux-Arts de Lyon (WikiCommons).

This vagueness was conveniently exploited by artists such as Rubens, who could then interpret the representation of Balthasar in a variety of ways.

- Félix Zorzo, Curatorial Assistant

Wax relief with The Adoration of the Magi

In previous #WallaceConnections posts this month we have seen how The Adoration of the Magi was interpreted by artists as both an excuse to display their painterly technique through a wide range of rich fabrics and ornaments worn by the three Magi, as well as an opportunity to portray characters with African and Middle-Eastern backgrounds in the figures of king Balthasar and his retinue.

For the last post of the series, we would like to bring your attention to a small wax relief made in Dresden, Saxony, where the artist has reinterpreted the well-known account told in the Bible. Here, instead of three kings of varying ages and ethnic backgrounds, we see high-ranking citizens wearing fashionable ruff collars.

One of them, kneeling before Jesus, wears a striking red doublet and breeches embellished with gold and a fur-trimmed short cloak over his shoulders. He offers the Infant Christ a chest full of worldly gold coins, but no sign of the more spiritual gifts, frankincense and myrrh, is seen.

The other two Magi stand behind in their jewel-encrusted black robes, a garment associated with either public figures or older men. Their faces have been modelled with an attention to detail and individualisation that suggest these are portraits of real people that decided to be immortalised as Melchior, Caspar and Balthasar.

- Félix Zorzo, Curatorial Assistant

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