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Although the original reference to the wise men, or magi, in the Gospel of Matthew is minimal, churchmen eventually elevated them to the status of kings, gave them names -- Balthasar, Caspar, and Melchior -- and invested their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh with specific meanings. The royal status and foreign origins of the three travelers inspired medieval and Renaissance artists, who gave free reign to their imaginations in treating the colorful subject.

Juan de Flandes (John of Flanders) took the opportunity to paint a fanciful scene replete with opulent costumes, gleaming gold and jewels, and varied racial types. All wear exotic headgear and carry ornate vessels containing their gifts. Visible in the distance, on horseback, are several smaller figures, members of the kings' retinue.

Although there are numerous references to this presumably northern painter in the records of his Spanish patrons, nothing is known of his early years. His reputation as an artist derives entirely from the works he produced in Spain, where he served as court painter to Queen Isabella until her death in 1504. Later, he painted this panel and its three companion pieces, also in the National Gallery; together, they once formed part of a large altarpiece in the Church of San Lázaro in Palencia.


Altarpiece of the "capilla mayor (main chapel)," church of San Lázaro, Palencia, commissioned c. 1508, until at least 1761.[1] Acquired c. 1952 by (Frederick Mont, New York);[2] purchased 11 February 1953 by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, New York;[3] gift 1961 to NGA.

Technical Summary

The panel was cradled and the painting cleaned and restored in 1953/1954 in the same manner as the Annunciation, 1961.9.22. Although the edges of the panel were probably planed slightly to neaten them, the panel retains its unpainted margins. The lower margin has been trimmed somewhat, however. The panel has four vertical members and was originally prepared in the same way as 1961.9.2. However, x-radiographs of this painting and The Baptism of Christ made before they were cradled show that the horizontal battens had already been removed, though the nail holes are still visible. A broad brush underdrawing is visible with infrared reflectography, particularly in the face of the Virgin, the body of the Christ Child, and the face of the kneeling magus. A point and radiating circles incised into the ground indicate that the aureole around the star was made with a compass. The painting is in good condition. There are numerous small local losses throughout, as well as a larger loss through the nose of the Christ Child and more general abrasion along the top and bottom edges.


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