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The Youngest King


Peter Paul Rubens, One of the Three Magi, possibly Balthasar, c. 1618, oil on panel. Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp—UNESCO World Heritage

As early as the 10th century, biblical commentaries suggested that one of the Magi came from Africa. In art, however, the African king first appeared around the beginning of the 15th century, becoming nearly ubiquitous by the early 16th. He usually is portrayed as the youngest king and associated with the gift of myrrh.

An aromatic resin extracted from Cammiphora trees that grow in North Africa and the Middle East, myrrh is, like frankincense, burnt as incense.  But more significantly for the story of the Magi, it was used in biblical times to anoint the dead, and thus seen as foreshadowing the death of Christ. Indeed, the Gospel of John reports that Jesus was buried with myrrh in accordance with Jewish burial customs. Rubens’s king opens the lid of a small chest that recalls a sarcophagus, revealing a glow of light that hints at Christ’s resurrection. The gift of myrrh thus proclaims the central tenet of Christianity: the mystery of Jesus’s death and resurrection and, therefore, his divinity.


Peter Paul Rubens, Portrait of Mulay Ahmad, c. 1609, oil on panel. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, M. Theresa B. Hopkins Fund   Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Unlike the other two Magi paintings that Rubens painted for Moretus, this figure is not based on a life study but on an earlier work of art—a portrait of a Tunisian king. That 15th-century painting, executed by a Dutch artist who had visited Tunis, may have been in Rubens’s own collection; the artist made a copy of it that still exists. As was his practice, Rubens used the figure in other compositions: for example, as the African king in his Adoration of the Magi in the St. Janskerk in Mechelen (engraved by Lucas Vorsterman in 1620).