Probably his earliest surviving painting, this depiction of the popular Christian story satisfies convention, but shows signs of Bosch’s developing originality and genius.
The Artist: Hieronymus Bosch (c 1450–1516)
The Painting: The Adoration of the Magi (catalogue raisonné no. 10)
Dates: c 1470-80
Media: oil and gold on oak panel
Dimensions: 71.1 x 56.7 cm
Location: The Metropolitan Museum of Art (John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1913), New York, NY
Credits: Photo Rik Klein Gotink and image processing Robert G. Erdmann for the Bosch Research and Conservation Project, via Wikimedia Commons.
The story of the adoration of the infant Christ by three wise men, kings or Magi “from the east”, is one of the most popular and enduring among paintings in the Christian canon. The outline given in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2 verse 11, had become elaborated by convention. Three wise men had seen a new star – possibly a comet or an unusually bright planet – which they believed would lead them to the birth of a great prophet. They travelled by the guidance of that star, to arrive at Bethlehem.
There they found the newborn Christ with Mary his mother, paid homage to him in the shed in which the holy family was lodging, and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The painting shows, at its centre, the naked infant Christ sat up on the Virgin Mary’s lap. She wears her customary blue robes, which flow out onto a dais covered with folds of gilt fabric. Her eyes look down at the infant. To the left, and closer to the viewer, an old Joseph kneels, supporting himself on a walking stick.
The Magi are shown in front of Mary and Jesus, in the lower right of the panel. The first to pay homage kneels to present a golden ewer and basin. He has removed his hat, which incorporates a gold coronet. Deeper into the view are his colleagues: the nearer, apparently from Africa, bearing a spherical ciborium of frankincense which is decorated with a phoenix, and the third holding his Gothic ciborium containing myrrh. In the centre foreground is a seated dog with a collar.
This homage is set in the ruins of an old castle, shown in deep perspective projection. The left wall has a small round tower, at the foot of which is an open area where an ox and the hindquarters of an ass are visible. Peeping out from a window in the wall is the face and hands of a man. There is a larger window along the right wall, through which two shepherds are leaning, one warming his right hand over a small open fire. Above them four angels spread a large green tarpaulin to provide some shelter, and a fifth is just peeping up from the top of the tower.
In the distance is a rich rolling coastal landscape, with shepherds tending their flocks, scattered trees and small woods, a walled town with a tower, and a large castle at the mouth of a river. There are also signs of a military conflict, with three small armies on the move, each bearing flags. On the bank just below the bridge at the right, crows pick at the skeleton of a dead animal. Further in the distance, on the bank opposite the large castle, a body hangs from a gibbet.
At the very top, in the centre, a bright star is visible even in the daylight.
More commonly shown as a linear or even frieze-like format, the adoration of the Magi has also been painted showing depth in the ‘portrait’ orientation. Bosch’s approach is unusual in several respects, in setting the scene in a castle with stone walls, and in aligning the viewer to look down its length. Combined with its detailed landscape, it gives the view a very unusual appearance of great depth behind the key actors in the foreground.
Painted less than a century after the ‘discovery’ of linear perspective projection in Florence, and early in Bosch’s career, it is not surprising that its perspective projection looks slightly awkward. The (single) vanishing point for the stonework appears to be directly above Mary’s head, just below the background tree, which would of course be incompatible with that background.
The key actors and objects in the painting are completed in fine detail, with very effective modelling of volumes and surfaces. To some extent their detail and quality contrasts with the simpler rendering of the floor, and to a lesser extent the walls, which give the impression of pastiche or collage, particularly in the shepherds leaning through the window.
Unlike many later paintings of the adoration of the Magi, Bosch keeps this relatively simple, and does not crowd Mary and Jesus out with trains of camels, passing cattle, and sundry assistants. This keeps attention on the most important figures of Mary and Jesus.
Bosch’s rich imagination is, though, starting to take hold of some of the periphery, where he adds fascinating but irrelevant details: the fifth angel struggling from the top of the tower, birds and vegetation in the top window of the tower, the small fire to warm the shepherds, a pot and staff left on the top of the wall at the right edge, and the many slightly more sinister incidents occurring in the landscape.
His landscape is in keeping with the tradition developed by Jan van Eyck and others in the Northern Renaissance, and is much more natural and populated than those typical of Italian painters of the time.
In the early twentieth century, this was considered to be a geniune painting by Bosch’s own hand. However, in 1937, de Tolnay listed it as contested, describing it as “a pastiche”, and it fell from favour thereafter. Its status was re-evaluated in 2002, and it was proposed that it should be returned to the list of Bosch’s own works.
Since then the major Bosch Research and Conservation Project (BRCP) has undertaken extensive and detailed analysis, particularly of the dendrochronology (tree ring dating) of the wood panels on which it was painted, and of the underdrawing, which was performed using a brush, which was Bosch’s favourite technique. Their evidence is presented in detail in the 2016 catalogue raisonné, and makes a very strong case for this work being attributed to Bosch himself.
Although it has been suggested that this painting was one of a triptych showing scenes from the life of Christ, there is little evidence to support that, and many experts now consider that it was commissioned alone.
Matthijs Ilsink, Jos Koldeweij et al. (2016) pp 216-223 in Hieronymus Bosch, Painter and Draughtsman: Catalogue Raisonné, Yale UP and Mercatorfonds. ISBN 978 0 300 22014 8.