Peter Paul Rubens painted this compelling image of one of the three Magi around 1618 for his childhood friend Balthasar Moretus the Elder (1574–1641), owner of the prestigious Plantin Press in Antwerp. Traditionally identified as Melchior, the Assyrian king, this profile image of a middle-aged man with a full beard is not shown as an exotic king from a distant past but as a tangible flesh and blood figure with a powerful three-dimensional presence. Wearing a sumptuous scarlet robe, he has just started to open his gilded vessel, revealing his gift of frankincense. Biblical commentators interpreted Melchior's gift, which was burnt as incense in biblical times, as representing sacrifice, prayer, and the recognition of Christ's divine majesty.
This painting was one of five images that Rubens painted for Moretus at that time. The other four represented the Virgin and Child; Joseph; and the other two Magi: the Greek king, traditionally named Gaspar; and the Ethiopian king, traditionally named Balthasar. Like many citizens in Antwerp, Balthasar Moretus and his brothers were named after the three kings—in the hope, according to their father, that they would "seek to do honor and glory to Him after the example of the Three Kings." Three paternal uncles also bore the names Balthasar, Gaspar, and Melchior. The family affinity for the kings is also evident in Balthasar Moretus's personal motto, stella duce ("with the star as guide"), and he even incorporated the star of the Magi into printer's marks for Plantin Press publications, some of which were designed by Rubens.
Beyond the associations of the Magi to Balthasar Moretus, the biblical account of the Adoration of the Magi was deeply meaningful to the pious Rubens, who painted the subject at least twelve times. It was also an important theme for Antwerp, the great international port that welcomed so many distant travelers, as the Magi had been.