Bartolomeo Biscaino, Adoration des Mages

Adoration of the Magi, mid 17th century oil painting by Bartolomeo Biscaino.

The Adoration of the Magi is the name traditionally given to the Christian subject in the Nativity of Jesus in art in which the three Magi, represented as kings, especially in the West, having found Jesus by following a star, lay before him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and worship him. In the church calendar, this event is commemorated in Western Christianity as the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6). The Orthodox Church commemorates the Adoration of the Magi on the Feast of the Nativity (December 25). Christian iconography has considerably expanded the bare account of the Biblical Magi given in the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-11) and used it to press the point that Jesus was recognized, from his earliest infancy, as king of the earth.


In the earliest depictions, the Magi are shown wearing Persian dress of trousers and Phrygian caps, usually in profile, advancing in step with their gifts held out before them. These images use Late Antique poses for barbarians submitting to an Emperor, and presenting golden wreaths, and indeed relate to images of tribute-bearers from various Mediterranean cultures going back many centuries. The earliest are from catacomb paintings and sarcophagus reliefs of the 4th century. Crowns are first seen in the 10th century, mostly in the West, where their dress had by that time lost then any Oriental flavour in most cases.[1] Later Byzantine images often show small pill-box like hats, whose significance is disputed. They are usually shown as the same age until about this period, but then the idea of depicting the three ages of man is introduced: a particularly beautiful example is seen on the façade of the cathedral of Orvieto. The scene was one of the most indispensable in cycles of the Life of the Virgin as well as the Life of Christ.

Occasionally from the 12th century, and very often in Northern Europe from the 15th, the Magi are also made to represent the three known parts of the world: Balthasar is very commonly cast as a young African or Moor, and old Caspar is given Oriental features or, more often, dress. Melchior represents Europe and middle age. From the 14th century onwards, large retinues are often shown, the gifts are contained in spectacular pieces of goldsmith work, and the Magi's clothes are given increasing attentention.[1] By the 15th century, the Adoration of the Magi is often a bravura piece in which the artist can display their handling of complex, crowded scenes involving horses and camels, but also their rendering of varied textures: the silk, fur, jewels and gold of the Kings set against the wood of the stable, the straw of Jesus's manger and the rough clothing of Joseph and the shepherds.

The scene often includes a fair diversity of animals as well: the ox and ass from the Nativity scene are usually there, but also the horses, camels, dogs, and falcons of the kings and their retinue, and sometimes other animals, such as birds in the rafters of the stable. From the 15th century onwards, the Adoration of the Magi is quite often conflated with the Adoration of the shepherds from the account in the Gospel of Luke (2:8-20), an opportunity to bring in yet more human and animal diversity; in some compositions (triptychs for example), the two scenes are contrasted or set as pendants to the central scene, usually a Nativity.

The usefulness of the subject to the Church and the technical challenges involved in representing it have made the Adoration of the Magi a favorite subject of Christian art: chiefly painting, but also sculpture and even music (as in Gian-Carlo Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors).

Treatments by individual artists

Many hundreds of artists have treated the subject. A very partial list of the most celebrated is:

  • Hieronymus Bosch: Museo del Prado, Madrid
  • Sandro Botticelli: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
  • Pieter Brueghel the Younger: National Gallery, Prague
  • Edward Burne-Jones: The Star of Bethlehem, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
  • Adoration of the Magi (Andrea della Robbia), Victoria and Albert Museum
  • Albrecht Dürer: Uffizi Gallery, Florence
  • Fra Angelico: Museo S. Marco, Florence
  • Gentile da Fabriano: Adoration of the Magi, Uffizi Gallery, Florence
  • Domenico Ghirlandaio: Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence
  • Benozzo Gozzoli: Convent of S. Marco, Florence
  • Benozzo Gozzoli: Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence
  • Leonardo da Vinci: Uffizi Gallery, Florence
  • Filippo Lippi: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
  • Lo Spagna: altarpiece, Museo S. Francesco, Trevi
  • Andrea Mantegna: Getty Museum
  • Tommaso Masaccio: predella from the Pisa altarpiece: Gemäldegalerie, Berlin
  • Juan Bautista Mayno: Museo del Prado, Madrid
  • Hans Memling: Museo del Prado, Madrid
  • Bartolomé Estéban Murillo: Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio
  • Pietro Perugino: fresco, church of the Madonna delle Lacrime, Trevi; fresco, Oratorio dei Bianchi, Città della Pieve; National Gallery of Umbrian Art, Perugia
  • Nicola Pisano: Baptistry, Pisa
  • Nicolas Poussini: Gemäldegalerie, Dresden
  • Peter Paul Rubens: King's College Chapel, Cambridge
  • Peter Paul Rubens: Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp
  • Giovanni Battista Tiepolo: Alte Pinakothek, Munich
  • Diego Velázquez: Museo del Prado, Madrid
  • Rogier van der Weyden: St Columba Altarpiece, Alte Pinakothek, Munich
  • Gottfried Helnwein: Denver Art Museum [2]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Schiller, Gertrud; Seligman, Janet (1971). Iconography of Christian Art, Vol. I: Christ's incarnation, childhood, baptism, temptation, transfiguration, works and miracles, (English trans from German), pp.100-114 & figs 245-298. London: Lund Humphries.
  2. Denver Art Museum, Radar, Selections from the Collection of Vicki and Kent Logan, Gwen F. Chanzit, 2006 [1]

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Adoration of the Magi. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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