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The Oldest King


Peter Paul Rubens, One of the Three Magi, possibly Gaspar, c. 1618, oil on panel. Museo de Arte de Ponce, The Luis A. Ferré Foundation, Inc.

In Adoration of the Magi scenes, the oldest king usually kneels closest to the Christ child and offers gold. The most precious of the three gifts, gold is traditionally interpreted as symbolizing Jesus’s kingship. Rubens’s pensive, aged figure wears no crown, but his eminence radiates in the resplendence of both his gold brocade mantle ringed by soft fur and his costly gold scalloped dish filled with coins—tribute from one king to another.

The names traditionally assigned to each of Rubens’s paintings follow the order in which they were listed in Plantin Press account records, with the assumption that the oldest king probably would have been named first and the youngest last: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Nevertheless, this identification is far from certain, especially given the interchangeability of the names in various accounts of the Magi throughout the centuries.



Paulus Pontius after Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Two Studies of an Elderly Man’s Head, pen and brown ink with brown wash. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Julius S. Held Collection

The Antwerp engraver Paulus Pontius made two sympathetic studies of this elderly man’s head in preparation for an engraving to be published in a compilation of prints after heads and figures by Rubens; such drawing books, as they are known, were intended to provide examples for artists to aid in the creation of compositions.