The Adoration of the Magi
Peter Paul Rubens
Three kings and their entourage have come from the East to greet the newborn Jesus. On the right you can see Mary, who shows her child proudly to the three wise men. She is not positioned in the middle of the painting, but is still the centre of attention. Peter Paul Rubens presents the biblical scene here in the manner of an opera performance, with monumental characters and Baroque spaces. It was perfect for the altarpiece’s original location: the church of St Michael’s Abbey in Antwerp. Rubens finished the panel in rapid brushstrokes in just two weeks. He was after all one of the most celebrated and sought-after artists of his time.
- The Adoration of the Magi
- 447 × 336 cm
- Inventory number:
More about this work
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 Rspaigne 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.
recuperation from: Frankrijk, 1815
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