The three kings are attended by extensive retinues and are bedecked in fine silks, damasks and furs. They wear suitably outlandish and gorgeous headgear — a pointer to the fact that they hail from far flung destinations — incorporating crowns to confirm their status. Their gifts are proffered in intricately wrought monstrances of unimaginable cost. The Madonna, clothed in her usual ultramarine blue, is holding the Christ child, who has already received the gift of gold coins and a gold chalice from Caspar. We know who he is as his name is conveniently displayed on the chalice lid lying next to his peaked hat. Balthazar, on the left, is similarly identified by an inscription on his crown. The third king, Melchior, awaits his turn on the right. Joseph, clad in startling red and betraying his age by using a walking stick, appears from an arch behind the Virgin. The ox lurks in another opening and the ass grazes contentedly near the shepherds. Above this gathering of humanity the nine orders of angels hover, some garbed in peculiarly clashing colours, perhaps signifying their other-worldly provenance.
All this is taking place in a ruined structure of indeterminate use — weeds grow from the cracked and broken paving. This ravaged folly is symbolic of the ‘old dispensation’ before the arrival of Christ. The protagonists here assembled are witnesses at the beginning of a new world.
In the distance, glimpsed through the arch in the very centre of the composition, we can just see a fantastical ‘ideal’ city — all Late Gothic spires and crockets. This perhaps, is the new Jerusalem, now attainable since the birth of the Messiah — a parallel universe ushered in by squadrons of angels and finely accoutred kings.
Gossaert visited Italy in 1508, returning to the Netherlands the following year. It is not known if the Adoration of the Kings was completed before or after this journey but it betrays minimal overt influence from the south (unlike his later output) except perhaps a consummate understanding of perspective. Rather Gossaert seems to be following in the footsteps of Hugo van der Goes and other Netherlandish painters of the late fifteenth century. But the artist signals in other ways that he is aware of a wider artistic milieu – the dog in the right foreground is a straight quote from a Dürer engraving of about 1500.
The staggering richness of this picture and the clarity with which each minute constituent is represented does not detract from the overall impact of the composition but this is a picture which can entertain and inform the viewer for a prolonged period — a scan across the canvas will always reveal a new detail, a new marvel of flawless artistry.
Image: Courtesy of the National Gallery, London
c1505 Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa; Paris, Musée du Louvre
1510 Vittore Carpaccio: Presentation of Christ in the Temple; Venice, Accademia
1513 Raphael: Triumph of Galatea; Rome, Palazzo della Farnesina