Merry Christmas everyone! With the spirit of the season in full swing, I thought I’d use this opportunity to write about one of the most popular holiday themes in art history. The title “Adoration of the Magi” is traditionally used to describe the nativity scene in art where the three Magi (also called Wise Men or kings) followed the Star of Bethlehem all the way to newborn saviour, Jesus. Once there the Magi presented the young King with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to honour his arrival.
This pilgrimage is described in Matthew 2:2 in which the Magi ask, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.”
In some cases the Adoration of the Shepherds from the Gospel of Luke (2:8-20) would be combined to expand the range of human figures and animals present in the composition. This was common during the 15th century and continued long after where the two scenes would either be presented in contrast with each other or together as part of a central Nativity scene. The first extant painting on this theme was the 2nd century fresco done in the Priscilla Catacomb of Rome.
But how did we come to be familiar with the nativity scene in the first place? How did it become such a permanent fixture in the festive season? Very few persons are knowledgeable of the fact that the tradition originated roughly 800 years ago. It was St. Francis of Assisi who, in 1223, staged the first nativity scene in a cave outside the town of Greccio, Italy on Christmas Eve night.
The driving force behind St. Francis’ decision to stage the scene was believed to be his disgust with the rampant greed in Italy at the time. He was convinced that his fellow men needed to be reminded that Jesus was born a poor child in a manger and not a rich king in a palace. It was such a progressive idea at the time that he needed to write to Pope Honorius III for permission before proceeding with the live but silent performance.
Although there was no mention of an ox or donkey in the Gospel recounting the birth of Jesus, St. Francis added the live animals to the scene because he felt people needed to remember that Jesus was born among the animals. In many ways he used them as a metaphor for the humility everyone should cling on to during the celebratory season. Since then the two animals have maintained a relatively strong and consistent presence in most renderings of the theme.
Typically many nativity scene paintings depict the three Magi in adoration before the infant Jesus and his mother, Mary. Some variations in the composition include the absence of the ox, donkey and at times even Joseph himself. The treatment of the background also varies wildly and could be pictured as anything from a kind of cave-like shelter to a stable or an inn.
Although there have been thousands of depictions of this particular scene I wanted to highlight the Adoration of the Magi as interpreted by the German engraver and painter, Albrecht Dürer. His 1504 portrayal of the Magi was commissioned by Frederick the Wise, Elector of Saxony, for the altar of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, and is considered by many to be one of his most significant works produced between 1494 and 1505.
His interpretation of the nativity scene features six figures in the foreground: the Holy Mother and Christ Child, the three Magi and a man who is either taking something out of a bag or putting something in on the right side of the picture plane. Many scholars believe that the most central, standing figure is actually Albrecht himself, as he had a penchant for inserting himself into many religious narratives. More figures are visible in the background, some on horseback and others on foot. Also in the background is a stretch of architectural ruins and quite a few arches placed along a diagonal extending from the top left of the painting to the bottom right, guiding the viewer’s gaze along the way. Closer examination of the background elements reveals in the distant a man on horseback at the foot of a hill with a white flag looming over him. Further up the hill appears to be a kind of city mounted atop the slopes of the hill with a body of water visible below it.
Coming back to the foreground figures, sure enough the ox and donkey are pictured in Dürer’s interpretation of the nativity scene. They are found to the left of the picture plane in a shelter behind the Holy Mother, almost nudging her back. Mary sits in profile with her son in her lap. He is reaching out for and collecting the gift box presented by the eldest king, who is on his knees in a posture of humility. The second king, who was painted in the artist’s own image, stands facing the viewer but his gaze is in the direction of the third king who is of African descent.
Dürer’s use of diagonal lines of movement throughout the composition work together to create a cohesive and equally dynamic perspective that help to balance the painting’s composition. Additionally, his placement of the free standing arches neither crowds the background nor conflicts with the figures in the foreground. Instead, there is a sense of airiness despite his inclusion of quite a number of elements strategically placed throughout the entire picture plane. In other words, Dürer has made effective use of every square inch of the painting without “doing too much.”
I wouldn’t go into detail about the incredible symbolism evident in his work but it should also be noted that Dürer was heavily influenced by Italian architecture, landscapes and Da Vinci’s treatment of them. Even the poses of the central figures are reminiscent of Da Vinci’s style.
With that, I do hope that you enjoy this painting as much as I do. As you sip on your sorrel drink, take some time to contemplate this magnificent painting. You will be sure to discover something new and exciting with each viewing. Best wishes to all for this beautiful day and the New Year ahead!