National Gallery of Art - THE COLLECTION

Audio text for The Adoration of the Magi

This complex and colorful work comes from Florence in the mid-1400's—the early Italian Renaissance. It represents the Adoration of the Magi--the three kings bringing gifts to the Christ Child twelve days after his birth. The scene focuses on the delicate moment when they arrive to kneel before the infant, who would, Christians believe, become king of all. This joyous event known as the Epiphany symbolizes the recognition of Christ by the pagan world. It is traditionally celebrated on January 6th, or twelfth night, the last of the 12 days of Christmas.

An excited throng representing all humanity, from richly clad nobles to peasants in homespun, winds its way down a steep path from the upper right. It disappears as the path continues between the mountain and the buildings, then spills out once more from the arch at the left, as if from a cornucopia. All this surging activity resolves itself in one quiet, tender moment in the foreground where a mighty king in a robe of the palest rose leans forward to kiss the infant's tiny foot.

The symbols in this painting highlight the shift from a Medieval way of thinking to a Renaissance one. The carpet of dark grass studded with bright flowers in the foreground seems to come right out of a Medieval tapestry, suggesting the glories of the Garden of Eden, or Paradise to come. Perched on the roof of the stable is a magnificent peacock. According to legend the bird's body did not decay after death, and it had been a symbol of immortality since ancient times. Here, it recalls the immortality offered by Christianity. The infant Jesus holds a pomegranate like a rattle in his left hand. Its numerous seeds refer to the Church, bringing together many souls under its care.

The Renaissance symbols are very different in character. The classical building in ruins and the stable intact, for example, represent the idea of the new Christian religion rising from the ruins of paganism. Nude figures on the walls show a new fascination with the classical world when sculptors rendered the human body so naturally. The wonders of this world, as opposed to Heaven, are evident in the stable itself, where we find stable boys shoeing horses—those saddles are straight out of the 15th century.

The joyful crowd, in contemporary dress, was probably inspired by an elaborate procession held in Florence every few years to celebrate the Epiphany. It was bankrolled in large part by the famous Medici family, outstanding patrons of the arts who once owned this magnificent painting. At the time, literacy was rare outside monasteries and aristrocratic circles. But here, the story is clearly written in the language of art, full of symbols that would have been instantly understood by those who saw them.