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The Middle-Aged King


Peter Paul Rubens, One of the Three Magi, possibly Melchior, c. 1618, oil on panel transferred to canvas. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Chester Dale Collection

The second king opens his vessel to reveal frankincense, an aromatic substance derived from the sap of Boswellia trees found in the Middle East, North Africa, and India. Biblical commentators interpreted the gift, which is burnt as incense, as representing sacrifice, prayer, and the recognition of Christ’s divine majesty.

Rubens kept a number of studies of heads in his studio for use when composing paintings, a practice he may have known from an earlier Antwerp artist, Frans Floris, as well as artists he had met while in Italy. Whether originating from his imagination or made from life after models he posed in the studio, these character studies represented an array of types, from youth to old age, with varying expressions.

63826, ILE1972.14.2

Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of a Man, c. 1615, oil on panel. Yale University Art Gallery, Lent by The Barker Welfare Foundation, in memory of Catherine Barker and Charles V. Hickox, B.A. 1911

Rubens’s middle-aged king was based on one such study of a man in 17th-century dress, painted with an immediacy that suggests it was done from life. For Moretus’s king, the artist transformed the man from a specific contemporary model into an idealized historical figure by lengthening his hair, clothing him in a regal red robe, and softening the handling of flesh tone, wrinkles, and beard to give a more generalized effect.