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Sandro Botticelli, a Florentine, painted several versions of the theme of the Adoration of the Magi. The Magi, or wise men, were particularly venerated in Florence, as one of the city's leading religious confraternities was dedicated to them. The members of the confraternity took part in pageants organized every five years, when the journey to Bethlehem of the Magi and their retinue, often numbering in the hundreds, was re-enacted through the streets of Florence.

The Washington Adoration was probably painted in Rome, where Pope Sixtus IV had called the artist to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel, along with other leading Florentine masters of the day. Botticelli's linear and decorative Adoration is set in the ruin of a classical temple instead of a humble stable. This setting emphasizes the belief that Christianity arose from the ruins of paganism, and suggests a continuity between ancient and Christian philosophy.

Earlier Renaissance paintings of this theme, such as the Gallery's tondo by Fra Angelico and Fra Lippi, emphasize the pomp and pageantry of the scene. As painted by Botticelli in this late version, the religious aspect is stressed. Each figure is an expression of piety, the postures of their hands and bodies revealing devotion, reverence and contemplation on the divine mystery before them.


Said to have been acquired from a private collection in Rome by the engraver Peralli.[1] Dominique Vivant Denon [1747-1825], Paris;[2] sold 1808 to Czar Alexander I of Russia, [1777-1825], Saint Petersburg; Imperial Hermitage Gallery, Saint Petersburg;[3] purchased January 1931 through (Matthiesen Gallery, Berlin; P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London and New York; and M. Knoedler & Co., New York and London) by Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.;[4] deeded 5 June 1931 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh;[5] gift 1937 to NGA.

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