thu 30/05/2024

Yuletide Scenes 2: The Adoration of the Kings | reviews, news & interviews

Yuletide Scenes 2: The Adoration of the Kings

Yuletide Scenes 2: The Adoration of the Kings

Gossaert's richly detailed Nativity is a Northern Renaissance painting par excellence

Jan Gossaert's The Adoration of the Kings, in which even the angels have coloured wings© National Gallery, London

Jan Gossaert’s The Adoration of the Kings, painted in 1510-15, is a sumptuous, richly detailed and even, to us today, slightly hilarious painting. It’s the large central panel of a Flemish altarpiece which includes practically every motif of the subject possible in a heady mix of ingredients.

With its meticulous attention to detail, its exquisite rendering of texture and material, it’s a Northern Renaissance painting par excellence. The central figure is the Virgin, unusually all in blue – ultramarine being among the most expensive pigments of the time – with one of those little old babies, so unlike real babies, sitting regally poised in her lap. The Christ Child is being adored by one of the three kings, those astronomer scholars who followed the star leading them. Adorned with jewels, their clothes are richly decorated with swirling patterns. Melchior is quite a dandy, gesturing as he holds out a golden vessel and dressed in a green tunic, a golden fur-collared cloak, cerise stockings, and a dashing red hat.

The whole is a courtly scene taking place in a ruin

Even the angels have, again most unusually, coloured wings, and robes of varying hues, complete with floating ribbons. Best of all perhaps are the two dogs in the foreground, borrowed from prints by other artists, who are, as befits a cut and paste technique, oblivious to the drama behind. One has his head down among the paving stones, sniffing a bone. The black king to the left is Balthasar, complete in his retinue with a black attendant. His hat bears the artist’s signature, his scarf a Latin inscription hailing the Queen of Mercy. A scroll held aloft by an angel is inscribed to the glory of God. Caspar kneeling before the Virgin’s rather modest throne has offered a golden bowl containing a gift of golden coins, and the Child thoughtfully grasps one of them.

Meanwhile, Joseph leans on a staff. Behind him is a demure ass; sheltering far behind the Virgin, the donkey is eating, as donkeys do. There are shepherds behind and in the distance. High above, the guiding star lights the sky, and the dove seems almost to be bestowing a blessing.

All this hubbub is framed in a series of half-wrecked brick walls, which are in a lot of mixed-up styles: arches and columns, several decorated with friezes of lively naked babies. The whole is a courtly scene taking place in a ruin. 

Secular psychologists would have a field day with the layers of meaning pressed into Renaissance renderings of this holy event: the veneration and respect for various familial permutations, with varied kinds of love, respect and entanglement among the generations, the appurtenances of great wealth – gold, frankincense, myrrh, jewellery, ornament, the richest of textiles – and yet a dog with a bone, and the whole framed by ruins.

The most humble of subjects, a poverty stricken birth in a stable, is here adorned with as many worldly manifestations of great wealth as possible. The colours are resplendent, unexpected, glowing and beguiling. The composition, in its play with perspective and scale, is complex, and the meticulous details utterly fascinating. A picture to look into and around the subject, the Nativity, that marks the turning of the year.

The most humble of subjects, a poverty stricken birth in a stable, is here adorned with as many worldly manifestations of great riches as possible

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