National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION
image of The Adoration of the Magi Sandro Botticelli (painter)
Florentine, 1446 - 1510
The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1478/1482
tempera and oil on panel
painted surface: 68 x 102 cm (26 3/4 x 40 3/16 in.) overall size: 70 x 104.2 cm (27 9/16 x 41 in.) framed: 98.4 x 132.1 x 8.3 cm (38 3/4 x 52 x 3 1/4 in.)
Andrew W. Mellon Collection
1937.1.22
Not on View
From the Tour: Patrons and Artists in Late 15th-Century Florence
Object 2 of 8

For most of the fifteenth century, the Epiphany was celebrated in Florence with a great festival. Expensively clad citizens reenacted the journey of the three kings to Bethlehem with processions through the streets. Shortly before this work was painted, however, the elaborate pageantry of the festival was curtailed. Preachers like Savonarola complained that excessive luxury obscured the day's religious significance.

Botticelli's painting seems to reflect this new concern. He places Jesus at the center of a powerful X formed by the opposing triangles of kneeling worshipers and the roof of the manger. The viewer, rather than being overwhelmed by rich detail, is instead aware of the quiet distance between him and the holy figures—and like the worshipers in the painting leans toward the infant. This yearning to close the gap between human existence and the divine was a frequent Neoplatonic theme.

Botticelli may have painted this while in Rome working on the Sistine Chapel. Rearing horses in the background, for example, appear to reflect the colossal horses of the Dioscuri. The classical architecture of the manger and the crumbling ruins also have theological significance. Legend held that earthquakes destroyed pagan temples at the moment Christ was born, and in a more general sense ruins suggest that the old order of the Law of Moses is supplanted by the new era of Grace made possible by Christ's birth.

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