The Wallace Collection

The Adoration of the Magi, Germany (Saxony), c.1583 (S459)
Treasure of the Month - December 2010

The Adoration of the Magi, Germany (Saxony), c.1583 (S459)

The Adoration of the Three Kings or Magi is one of the best-known episodes from the Christmas story.

After Mary had given birth, first shepherds from the nearby fields came to pay homage to the infant Jesus and then, travellers from much farther afield, wise men who had travelled from distant lands, following a star in the sky.  By the Middle Ages the iconography of the Adoration of the Magi had become firmly established in Western art.  There were three Kings, whose names were Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar and, as related in the Bible (Matthew 2:1-12) they offered Christ ‘gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh’.   The Kings were often depicted in exotic costumes and at least one was often shown as an African.

This appears at first sight to be a conventional rendition of this familiar scene, with the three Magi at left, one of them kneeling and offering Christ gold from an open casket.  Christ is seated on Mary’s lap and her husband Joseph looks on from behind a wall of the ruinous stable, in which the Holy Family were forced to seek shelter.  In the background are the ox and the ass while the star which guided the Magi is seen at the top.  An angel at the far right seems to be tending a child in an elaborate cradle.   However, the Kings are not dressed in exotic costumes but in late 16th-century court dress, as is Mary.  They are clearly portraits, which are in fact individual enough to allow us to identify them.

The kneeling figure seems to be Christian I of Saxony (1560-1591), Elector (ruler) of the state of Saxony from 1586, while Mary is his wife, Electress Sophie of Brandenburg (1568-1622), whom Christian married in 1582.  The other two Magi would seem to be their respective fathers, Augustus I (the Pious) of Saxony (1526-1586) and Johann Georg, Elector of Brandenburg (1525-1598).  It is probable that the Christ Child represents one of Christian and Sophie’s children, perhaps their first son to survive, the future Elector Christian II (1583-1611), born on 23 September 1583.    

Therefore, the scene appears to celebrate not only the birth of Christ but also that of His namesake, the baby Christian.  It is possible to conceive it being made for Christmas 1583, as a gift or token to celebrate the important birth of a child and heir to the throne of Saxony.  Made from delicately modelled coloured waxes, kept safe within a beautifully engraved gilt-bronze capsule, it is just the sort of exquisite and precious work of art for which the Dresden Kunstkammer, established by Augustus I in 1560, was soon to become famous, and for which it is still known to this day. 

Free Gallery Talks

Tuesday 7 and Tuesday 21 December at 1 pm, with Jeremy Warren.

Further Reading

James Mann, Wallace Collection Catalogues: Sculpture, 2nd edition, London 1981

© The Trustees of the Wallace Collection 2010

Text by Jeremy Warren