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Object details

The Adoration of the Magi
447 × 336 cm
Inventory number: 

More about this work

On the right in the open manger Joseph and Mary are presenting the Christ Child to the three ‘kings’. This event is briefly mentioned in the Bible (Matthew 2:1-12), with just a summary of the gifts. The names and description of the kings are from later traditions. The man in the white garment who is holding an incense thurible is Caspar. The man towering up behind him is Balthazar, holding an urn of myrrh in his right hand. Standing in the left foreground and clad in red is Melchior, the oldest of the three. He is staring out at the viewer and holds a tazza of gold coins. Their entourage consists of servants, soldiers and two men on dromedaries in the background. Rubens’s treatment differs a little from traditional Adorations. For example, Caspar is the closest to Jesus, not Melchior with the gold. In addition, Caspar is wearing a surplice and stole, which is liturgical garb. Rubens thus linked the story to the Eucharist with this innovation.

The painting originally hung in the church of St Michael’s Abbey in Antwerp. It had been founded by the Norbertines in 1124, and grew to become one of the most powerful religious institutions in the Low Countries, partly because dignitaries visiting Antwerp stayed the night in the Prinsenhof. Beginning in the 16th century various disasters struck the abbey. In 1501 it was hit by lightning, and in 1524 there was a fire in the crossing tower. Then during the Iconoclasm (1566) and the Spanish Fury (1576) parts of the building were destroyed by mobs. In 1620 there was a major fire in the church. It was after the fire, that Abbot Matthijs Van Eerssel ordered an altarpiece from Rubens in 1624 for 1,500 guilders, exactly 500 years after the foundation of the abbey. That anniversary was probably partly the reason for the commission.

The painting adorned the high altar in a monumental altar frame, a structure in red and black marble crowned with three alabaster sculptures of Sts Michael, Mary and Norbert. The painting was flanked by columns with Corinthian capitals, an order that is repeated in the background of the altarpiece. Many altar frames have been lost, but the one in St Michael’s is now in the Church of St Trudo in Zundert in the Netherlands. Rubens sketched designs for it, and its execution is attributed to Hans Van Mildert.

The Adoration of the Magi was painted very quickly indeed. The ox at bottom right, for example, consists of just a few strokes that were applied judiciously on top of the visible brown ground. Tradition has it that Rubens painted the entire altarpiece himself in just two weeks. It is impossible to check that. When the painting was studied in detail in 2007, experts judged that it was indeed painted entirely by Rubens. Nothing indicates that he had any help from assistants on the massive panel. It is not clear why. Rubens’s studio was working at full tilt in 1624 to handle the flood of commissions that were coming in from churches and palaces throughout Europe. Perhaps it had something to do with the prestigious location, which had a special meaning for Rubens. His mother was buried in the church, and it was where he married his first wife, Isabella Brant, in 1609.

Rubens painted contemporary oriental clothing in a scene from biblical times. In other word we are looking more at a product of his imagination than at historical reality. He based Balthazar’s dress on his portrait of Nicolas de Respaigne (Kassel, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, inv. no. GK 92), a merchant who was in Aleppo in 1615 and returned to Antwerp around 1619. There is documentary evidence that De Respaigne left ‘Turkish’ clothing to his son in his will.

Rubens’s iconic Adoration of the Magi is one of the finest pieces of Flemish art. Several reduced copies of it were painted in the 17th century, and it served as the model for prints.

Acquisition history

recuperation from: Frankrijk, 1815

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