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Overview

This brilliantly colored, richly decorated circular panel presents a splendid vision of the arrival of the Magi, accompanied by a courtly entourage. A 1492 inventory of Lorenzo de' Medici's estate possibly identifies this picture as the most valuable in the collection of the powerful Florentine family, and attributes it to Fra Angelico. The Adoration of the Magi actually appears to be the product of two artists; Fra Angelico may only have started the altarpiece, the greatest part of the work having been taken up by Fra Filippo Lippi.

Fra Angelico was a Dominican known for his great monastic devotion; his saintly deportment is mirrored in the quiet piety of his paintings. The representation of the Virgin Mary here characterizes his style in the pure, simple form of her head and the gentle refinement of her features. Fra Filippo's earthy style appeals to the viewer in the portrayal of massive forms and well–articulated figures. In the Adoration, the richly attired wise men and their attendants, as well as the broad–faced Joseph beside the Virgin, are usually attributed to him.

While several elements of the painting can be seen as symbolic—for example, the peacock was considered a symbol of immortality—the Adoration can also simply be appreciated for its sparkling color, delightful details, and festive gaiety.

Provenance

Probably commissioned by a member of the Medici family, Florence; by inheritance to Lorenzo de' Medici [1449-1492], Florence.[1] probably Marchese Piero Guicciardini [1569-1626]; his widow, Marchesa Simona Machiavelli [1584-1658], Florence;[2] by inheritance to her great-nephew, Count Francesco Guicciardini [1618-1677], Florence; by inheritance to his son, Count Lorenzo Guicciardini [1652-1710], Florence; by inheritance to his son, Count Francesco Gaetano Guicciardini [1699-1780], Florence; by inheritance to his son, Count Lorenzo Guicciardini [1743-1812], Florence; by inheritance to his sons, Count Francesco [1776-1838] and Colonel Ferdinando [1782-1833] Guicciardini, Florence, in 1803;[3] sold July 1810 to Chevalier François-Honoré Dubois, Florence and Paris, as by Botticelli.[4] (Samuel Woodburn, London), by 1826, as by Fra Angelico.[5] William Coningham [1815-1884], London; (his sale, Christie & Manson, London, 9 June 1849, no. 34, as by Filippo Lippi).[6] Alexander Barker [d. 1873], London, by 1851;[7] (his sale, Christie, Manson & Woods, London, 6 June 1874, no. 42, as by Filippino Lippi);[8] purchased by (Giovanni Calvetti [d. 1875], London) for Sir Francis Cook, 1st bt. [1817-1901], Doughty House, Richmond, Surrey; by inheritance to his son, Sir Frederick Lucas Cook, 2nd bt. [1844-1920], Doughty House; by inheritance to his son, Sir Herbert Frederick Cook, 3rd bt. [1868-1939], Doughty House; by inheritance to his son, Sir Francis Ferdinand Maurice Cook, 4th bt. [1907-1978], Doughty House, and Cothay Manor, Somerset; sold February 1947 through (Francis A. Drey, London) to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York, as by Filippo Lippi;[9] gift 1952 to NGA.

Exhibition History
1868
Possibly National Exhibition of Works of Art, Leeds, 1868, no. 7 or no. 17.
1875
Exhibition of Works by the Old Masters. Winter Exhibition, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1875, no. 184, as The Adoration of the Infant Savior by Fra Filippo Lippi.
1909
National Loan Exhibition, Grafton Galleries, London, 1909-1910, no. 68, repro., as by Fra Filippo Lippi.
1919
Exhibition of Florentine Painting Before 1500, Burlington Fine Arts Club, London, 1919, no. 26 as by Fra Filippo Lippi (no. 26 and pl. XXVI in illustrated catalogue published 1920).
1930
Exhibition of Italian Art 1200-1900, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 1930, no. 93, as by Fra Filippo Lippi (no. 106 and pl. XXXVIII in commemorative catalogue published 1931; no. 35 in souvenir catalogue).
1944
Masterpieces from the Cook Collection, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio, 1944-1945, no. 16 (Cook collection catalogue number), repro., as by Filippo Lippi.
1945
Masterpieces of the Cook Collection, Art Gallery of Toronto (now Art Gallery of Ontario); National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1945, no cat.
Bibliography
1951
Einstein, Lewis. Looking at Italian Pictures in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, 1951: 32-33, repro.
1951
Paintings and Sculpture from the Kress Collection Acquired by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation 1945-1951. Introduction by John Walker, text by William E. Suida. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1951: 42, no. 9, repro.
1952
Frankfurter, Alfred M. "Interpreting Masterpieces: Twenty-four Paintings from the Kress Collection." Art News Annual 16 (1952): 84, repro.
1956
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1956: cover and 60, repro.
1957
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Comparisons in Art: A Companion to the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. London, 1957 (reprinted 1959): pl. 9, 106.
1959
Paintings and Sculpture from the Samuel H. Kress Collection. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1959: 50, repro.
1959
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Early Italian Painting in the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 1959 (Booklet Number Three in Ten Schools of Painting in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.): 26, color repro.
1960
The National Gallery of Art and Its Collections. Foreword by Perry B. Cott and notes by Otto Stelzer. National Gallery of Art, Washington (undated, 1960s): 6.
1961
Walker, John, Guy Emerson, and Charles Seymour. Art Treasures for America: An Anthology of Paintings & Sculpture in the Samuel H. Kress Collection. London, 1961:, 25-28, repro. pl. 19, color repro. 20-21
1962
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds., Treasures from the National Gallery of Art, New York, 1962: 12, color repro.
1963
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1963 (reprinted 1964 in French, German, and Spanish): 76, repro.
1965
Summary Catalogue of European Paintings and Sculpture. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1965: 8.
1966
Cairns, Huntington, and John Walker, eds. A Pageant of Painting from the National Gallery of Art. 2 vols. New York, 1966: 1:24, color repro.
1966
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Paintings from the Samuel H. Kress Collection: Italian Schools, XIII-XV Century. London, 1966: 95-97, fig. 259-261.
1968
European Paintings and Sculpture, Illustrations. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1968: 2, repro.
1975
European Paintings: An Illustrated Summary Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1975: 12, repro.
1975
Ruda, Jeffrey. "The National Gallery Tondo of the Adoration of the Magi and the Early Style of Filippo Lippi." Studies in the History of Art vol. 7 (1975):6-39, repro.
1978
King, Marian. Adventures in Art: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. New York, 1978: 20, pl. 2.
1979
Shapley, Fern Rusk. Catalogue of the Italian Paintings. 2 vols. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1979: I:10-13, II: repro. pl. 7, 7B,C,D
1979
Watson, Ross. The National Gallery of Art, Washington. New York, 1979: 19, pl. 3.
1982
Alsop, Joseph. The Rare Art Traditions: The History of Art Collecting and Its Linked Phenomena Wherever These Have Appeared. Bollingen series 35, no. 27. New York, 1982: 397, 403, fig. 81.
1984
Walker, John. National Gallery of Art, Washington. Rev. ed. New York, 1984: 84, no. 40, color repro.
1985
European Paintings: An Illustrated Catalogue. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1985: 19, repro.
1985
Wolk, Linda. "The Pala Baciadonne by Perino del Vaga." Studies in the History of Art 18 (1985):41, repro.
1991
Kopper, Philip. America's National Gallery of Art: A Gift to the Nation. New York, 1991: 6, 189, color repros.
1992
National Gallery of Art, Washington. National Gallery of Art, Washington, 1992: 15, repro.
1997
Shaw-Eagle, Joanna. "Christ's Birth Gave Birth to Astounding Images: Gallery Glitters with holy Masterpieces." Washington Times (December 21, 1997): D5, repro.
2003
Boskovits, Miklós, and David Alan Brown, et al. Italian Paintings of the Fifteenth Century. The Systematic Catalogue of the National Gallery of Art. Washington, D.C., 2003: 21-30, color repro.
2004
Danziger, Elon. "The Cook Collection: Its Founder and Its Inheritors." The Burlington Magazine 146, no. 1216 (July 2004): 444, 448, 457, repro.
2004
Hand, John Oliver. National Gallery of Art: Master Paintings from the Collection. Washington and New York, 2004: 20-21, no. 15, color repro.
2007
Sale, J. Russell. "Birds of a feather: the Medici 'Adoration' tondo in Washington." The Burlington Magazine 149 (January 2007): 4-13, repro.
2013
Campbell, Stephen J. and Michael W. Cole. Italian Renaissance Art. New York, 2013: 248, 249, color fig. 9.19.
Explore This Work

In the large ground-floor bedroom called Lorenzo’s bedroom...a large tondo...our Lady and our Lord and the Magi who come to bring offerings, from the hand of Fra Giovanni, f. 100.

From an inventory of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s chambers, 1492

In all likelihood this brilliant painting, dazzling with color and movement, is the one that was inventoried in 1492 after the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici, “il Magnifico,” Florence’s equally brilliant leader. At 100 florins, it was the most valuable painting in the palace and had probably been a treasured family possession for 40 or 50 years. The person who compiled the inventory believed that the tondo was the work of Fra Angelico, a favorite Medici artist. Scholars today, however, see more than one painter at work. The sweet delicacy of the Virgin’s face, for example, reveals the hand of Fra Angelico, who began his career as a manuscript illustrator, while the more robust figures of Joseph and the Three Kings point to his younger contemporary Fra Filippo Lippi. In 1438, Cosimo de’ Medici, Lorenzo’s grandfather, wrote that the two artists operated the most sought-after workshops in Florence. Probably, the panel was begun by Fra Angelico around 1440 but was left unfinished. After his death, some 20 years later, Fra Filippo, who had assumed the older artist’s mantle as Medici favorite, likely took up the commission. Other painters in the two artists’ busy shops may also have contributed.

41581-details

The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440/1460 (details)

Top left: Detail of the Virgin; Top right: Detail of Joseph
Bottom: Detail of the Three Kings

The Gospel (Matthew 2:1-12) account of the arrival of wise men from the East to adore the new king of the Jews is quite brief. Not until the third century were they identified as kings and their number set at three. In Western tradition Melchior, Caspar, and Balthazar are kings of Persia, India, and Arabia, and represented as men of youth, middle age, and old age.

The Medici and the Magi

The Medici, de facto rulers of the ostensibly republican Florence, were among the greatest art patrons of any era. They had a particular interest in paintings that depicted the Adoration of the Magi, the moment when the Three Kings, led by a miraculous star, discovered the Christ child. This event signified the recognition of the holy infant by the secular world and was celebrated in the feast of the Epiphany (from Greek, to manifest). Florence had mounted an Epiphany festival on January 6 at least since 1390, date of the earliest surviving record of it. The elaborate pageant, in which men reenacted the journey of the Magi through the streets of the city, must have looked much like the colorful throng that winds through the painting. By 1417 the festival was directed by a lay confraternity, the Compagnia de’ Magi, with funds donated by the Medici. Male members of the family participated in the procession, which passed in front of the Medici palace and began and ended at the church of San Marco, headquarters of the confraternity and an important recipient of Medici munificence. Cosimo had an image of the Adoration of the Magi in his private cell within San Marco. Lorenzo even changed the date of his birthday from January 1 to coincide with the feast on January 6.

The Tondo

The tondo format appeared in Tuscany as early as the 1403s and was used well into the 16th century, primarily for images of the Virgin and Child. Probably, the form is linked to the desco da parto, a birth tray, typically round, that was given to celebrate births and was used to bring refreshment to new mothers—a natural fit for images of the Virgin and child and, even more, with the Adoration of the Magi. It is possible that the tondo shape is an innovation associated with the Medici; the first known tondo, also an Adoration of the Magi, was a Medici commission. And, although the tondo’s circular shape can be seen as generally symbolizing perfection and eternity, it might also relate to the Medici device of a diamond ring.

41581-woodcut-tray

Left: Woodcut illustration from Savonarola, Predicta dell’arte del ben morire (Sermon on the Art of Dying Well), 1496
Chapin Library, Williams College, Williamstown, Mass.

Most tondos were apparently made for the home, as was this one depicted in the bedchamber of a dying man. The image illustrated a sermon on the subject of “dying well”—a preoccupation from the Middle Ages into the Renaissance—by Florence’s fiery preacher Girolamo Savonarola. Savonarola believed that images could reinforce faith and suggested the faithful should look on them daily and at the moment of their death. He wanted his sermon published with woodblocks to provide such images in an inexpensive form.

Right: Childbirth tray (desco da parto) with the Triumph of Fame (recto) and Medici and Tornabuoni arms and devices (verso), 1448–49
Giovanni di Ser Giovanni Guidi, called Lo Scheggia (Italian, Florentine, 1406–1486)
Tempera, silver, and gold on panel
Overall (with engaged frame)
Diam. 36 1/2 in. (92.7 cm); painted surface (recto)
Diam. 24 5/8 in. (62.5 cm); painted surface (verso)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Purchase in memory of Sir John Pope-Hennessy: Rogers Fund, The Annenberg Foundation, Drue Heinz Foundation, Annette de la Renta, Mr. and Mrs. Frank E. Richardson, and The Vincent Astor Foundation Gifts, Wrightsman and Gwynne Andrews Funds, special funds, and Gift of the children of Mrs. Harry Payne Whitney, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Joshua Logan, and other gifts and bequests, by exchange, 1995 (1995.7)

This desco da parto was created to celebrate the birth of Lorenzo de’ Medici. The front bears a scene based on Petrarch’s I trifone (The Triumphs). In this case, the particular triumph illustrated—Fame—could hardly have been more prescient. On the reverse is the baby’s father’s device of a diamond ring with feathers, paired with the coats-of-arms of his mother Lucrezia Tornabuoni.

 

Signs and Symbols

Within a bustling and crowded scene, many details help tell the story of the Magi and expand meaning.

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The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440/1460 (detail)

The crumbling architecture alludes to the end of the old pagan order brought about by Jesus’ birth.

The peacock, whose flesh was thought to be incorruptible, suggests the Resurrection and the promise of eternal life.

The nudes standing on the walls remain mysterious. Perhaps they are people who were formerly outcasts but who are now brought into the welcoming fold of the new religion.

41581-detail-03

The Adoration of the Magi, c. 1440/1460 (detail)

The star that guided the Three Kings, although unseen, is suggested by a man's amazed upward gaze.

The many seeds of the pomegranate held by the infant refer to the Church’s sheltering of the many souls of believers.

41581-barbadori-masterpiece

Filippo Lippi, Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels with Saint Frediano and Saint Augustine, known as the Barbadori Altarpiece, 1437 (detail).
Oil on wood
208 x 244 cm.
INV. 339.
Photo: Jean-Gilles Berizzi.
Louvre, Paris, France
© RMN-Grand Palais / Art Resource, NY

The kneeling friar on the left who looks out of the painting is presumed to be a self-portrait.

About the Artists

Baptized as Guido di Piero, the artist we know today as Fra Angelico took the name Fra Giovanni when he entered the Dominican order some time between 1417 and 1425 at Fiesole, near Florence. It was not until the 19th century that he was routinely called Fra Angelico, from an early epithet, pictus angelicus (angelic painter). The description, it seems, was apt, for both his art and his character. Giorgio Vasari wrote of him in the 16th century: “It is impossible to bestow too much praise on this holy father, who was so humble and modest in all that he did and said and whose pictures were painted with such facility and piety.” The artist, who was offered but refused the position of Florence’s archbishop, was formally beatified in 1982 by Pope John Paul II.

Little is known of Fra Angelico’s early life, but it seems that he and his brother worked in a scriptorium, Fra Angelico as an illuminator, his brother as a scribe. Fra Angelico’s paintings on panel share the luminous color and delicacy of manuscript illustrations, and he continued to model forms with color and light rather than the shadows of chiaroscuro. His works have exceptional naturalism, and he employed perspective in innovative ways to create convincing architectural settings. Fra Angelico’s figures convey deep human sentiment that was a natural expression of his own piety. Although many of his greatest works were made for religious patrons, especially his own order, his plentiful clientele also included the Medici and other powerful Florentine families. By the 1430s he was running Florence’s largest and most sought-after workshop. He exerted a significant influence on other artists, including Filippo Lippi, before he was called by the pope in 1445 to work in Rome. He also completed commissions in Orvieto and Perugia, and served as the prior of the convent in Fiesole between 1450 and 1452. He died in Rome in 1455.

Filippo Lippi was born around 1406 in Florence, one of many children of an impoverished butcher. Orphaned at a very young age, he and a brother were sent to the Carmelite monastery; Filippo may have been as young as eight. In 1421, he took the vows of a Carmelite monk, entering a religious life for which he was wholly unsuited. Next to nothing is known about his training as an artist, but it must have been within the monastery. He apparently showed early talent: Giorgio Vassari, the 16th-century artist and biographer, reported that Filippo’s schoolmasters found him doodling instead of working at lessons, filling his notebooks and those of fellow students. During 1424 and 1425, he would have been in position to study firsthand a series of groundbreaking frescoes being completed in the Brancacci chapel of the Carmelite church. These innovative works by Masaccio and Masolino used strong, consistent light to model figures with shadow and give them robust three-dimensionality. They also put into practice Brunelleschi's theories about how to project depth beyond a flat painted surface. Filippo’s earliest paintings, from the late 1430s, share some of the austere monumentality of Masaccio’s work, but his style later became more ornate and linear.

Filippo was among the first Italian painters to be influenced by Netherlandish artists, whose paintings were brought south by Italian bankers and merchants with business in the north. Not only did Filippo respond to the Netherlandish artists’ highly detailed and realistic portrayal of surfaces—from crystal vases to richly brocaded fabric—he was the first Italian painter to adopt the northern practice of depicting the Virgin and Child in the domestic settings of contemporary life. Filippo was also among the earliest Italian painters to create independent portraits, perhaps, again, following models from the north. From the 1440s, his work was increasingly influenced by the more delicate and refined style of his contemporary Fra Angelico.   

Filippo enjoyed the patronage of Cosimo de’ Medici, and the support of Florence’s most powerful family proved crucial to the artist, whose personal and business lives were fraught with problems. After Filippo had been appointed chaplain of a convent in nearby Prato, he began a long relationship with one of its residents, Lucrezia Buti. She was the model for several of his Madonnas. The two lived together openly between 1456 and 1458 and had a son, the painter Filippino Lippi. The scandal was compounded by civil complaints. Patrons claimed that Flilppo did not fulfill his contracts, and an assistant accused him of withholding wages. At one point, he was tortured on the rack. Even the Medici had difficulties with the artist, once holding him in “protective custody” within the palace so Filippo would complete a commission. He escaped. Finally, with help from Cosimo and the humanist pope Pius II, Filippo was allowed to leave his order. He and Lucrezia married and had one more child, a daughter.

All the while, Filippo maintained one of the two busiest workshops in Florence and enjoyed high regard as an artist. He trained his son and Botticelli and took on major commissions in Florence and elsewhere. A large number of his paintings survive. Even after he left the order, Filippo continued to sign his work Frater—brother.

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