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The adoration of the Magi. Triptych

Hieronymus Bosch • Painting, 1494, 147.4×168.6 cm
About the artwork
Art form: Painting
Subject and objects: Religious scene
Style of art: Northern Renaissance
Technique: Oil
Materials: Wood
Date of creation: 1494
Size: 147.4×168.6 cm
Artwork in selections: 42 selections

Description of the artwork «The adoration of the Magi. Triptych»

The Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch is a rare case when we do not know the exact date of the artwork (the Prado Museum indicates an indefinite “about 1494”, but many experts date the triptych to the 1510s and consider it one of the artist’s last works), we can definitely call those who commissioned it (donors). The triptych was commissioned by a well-born burgher from 's-Hertogenbosch, Peter Bronchorst, on the occasion of his marriage to Agnes Bosshuyse. Their kneeling portraits, accompanied by the heavenly patrons of both, St. Peter and St. Agnes, are placed on the inner shutters of the triptych.

According to the idea of the newlyweds, The Adoration of the Magi was to decorate the chapel of the Brotherhood of Our Lady in 's-Hertogenbosch — according to the preserved archival documents, Bosch himself belonged to the same religious organization. However, life turned otherwise: already in the middle of the 16th century, The Adoration of the Magi was first transported to Brussels by Jehan de Casembroot, secretary of the Duke of Egmont, and in 1567 confiscated from him by the Duke of Alba — the Spanish governor in the Netherlands, famous for his phenomenal cruelty. Several years later, Alba gave the triptych to King Philip II of Spain, a great connoisseur of Bosch’s work. Between 12 and 16 April 1574, the work entered the Escorial, and in 1839 it was moved to the Prado, where it is located to this day. The Adoration of the Magi is excellently preserved: there are even traces of the original gilding on the frames.

The outer shutters

The outer shutters of The Adoration of the Magi, just as it is in the rest of Bosch’s triptychs, are made in a monochrome technique called grisaille. Its grey-brown palette is only broken by the bright figure of the kneeling donor in a red headdress. Recent studies have irrefutably proved that it does not belong to Bosch and was added later.

The subject of the outer shutters is called “Mass of Saint Gregory”. The life of this saint is associated with a legend saying that the Pope Gregory the Great was saying Mass when a woman present started to laugh at the time of the Communion, saying to a companion that she could not believe the bread was Christ, as she herself had baked it. Gregory prayed fervently for a sign from Lord, and the host turned into a bleeding finger.

The triptych outer shutters are intended to tune the viewer to the perception of what he is about to see when the shutters open. In a sense, Bosch painted the Holy Mass not only from the outside: it is believed that inside the triptych and on the inner shutters of The Adoration of the Magi, Bosch likened everything to the church liturgy.

The inner shutters

The inner shutters that portray the donors are combined with the central part of the triptych through the common beautiful greenish-ocher landscape. The beautiful view depicts the nature of North Brabant, the birthplace of the artist.
Like any other medieval artist, Bosch depicted various small-scale scenes in the background to fill the space. For example, in the middle third of the left shutter, just above the head of the donor Bronchorst, you can see how the Elder Joseph, Maria’s betrothed, dries baby swaddling clothes over a fire. It reflects the simple-minded folk ideas about Joseph as a cuckold, a deceived husband: the Dutch priests had to make a lot of efforts to turn the thoughts of their flock on this matter into a pious channel.

The central part of the triptych

At first glance, it might seem that Bosch’s Adoration of the Magi does not differ much from the famous altarpieces of his predecessor Jan van Eyck. We can also see a religious scene that is recreated in beautiful harmonious colours and a balanced composition. The Mother of God and the Child are typically Dutch, they are easily recognizable — the similar ones can be found in the paintings of van Eyck or Rogier van der Weyden. And for a moment, it may even seem that it conveys the reverent mood, so characteristic of the Christmas theme.

But take a closer look, and the traditional splendour crumbles like false gilding. And instead of appeasement, the viewer is imbued with a typically Bosch feeling of growing anxiety. Riddles and glaring inconsistencies come to the fore. For example, why is there such a flashy dissonance between carefully painted clothes and jewels of the Magi and rough cracks, sloppy pieces of straw in a dilapidated building? Why do the shepherds who climbed onto the roof behave so unceremoniously? And most importantly, why are there not three kings (magi), as in the canonical text or in any other pictorial depiction of this scene, but, for some reason, four? Perhaps, the fourth one, in a royal crown and a cloak barely hiding his nakedness, tied at the door, is not a magus at all? But who is he? What made Bosch introduce a new subject into the established composition — so unexpected and inexplicably mysterious? There are still no unambiguous answers to most of the questions, and science has only versions at its disposal. 

The three magi (or kings) who brought gifts to the baby, whose names were Balthasar, Caspar and Melchior, over time began to represent different continents in which Christianity spread — Europe, Asia and Africa, therefore the artist depicts the youngest of the Magi, Caspar, black, and he is considered one of the best images by Bosch in terms of realism and art mastery.

The New Testament tells us what gifts of the Magi were: they brought Jesus gold (because they believed that a king had come to earth), incense (smoked in temples — this is how the Magi recognized the divine nature of a baby) and myrrh (used to embalm the dead — the wise men made it clear that the future death of Christ is open to them). But Bosch is not limited to a simple pictorial statement in the gifts depiction, he acts much more original. Here his love for small and meaningful details is reflected. Balthasar, the elder magus in a red cloak, put a golden sculpture at the feet of Mary at Bosch’s picture. It depicts the characters from the Old Testament — Abraham and his son Isaac, whom his father intended to sacrifice. This is a harbinger of the sacrifice that the Divine Baby is about to bring on the cross. Melchior, the second of the Magi, is dressed in an incredibly beautiful bib made of precious stones, depicting the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon. The dark-skinned Caspar holds a silver orb in his hand. A bird crowns its top — an eagle or a pelican (a symbol of sacrifice and redemption), and the orb itself also depicts Old Testament characters, the military leader Abner and David, the winner of Goliath.

The background shows an army, part of which is preparing to wade across the river. Perhaps this is the retinue of one of the kings, or, perhaps, a hint of the army of three earthly kings, described in the Apocalypse.

But the greatest confusion is caused by the group of grotesque subjects who have penetrated into the dilapidated barn, and their likely leader in particular. His nakedness is only covered by a purple cloak. On one leg, there is a transparent cylinder hiding an ulcer (by the way, a wounded leg in the time of Bosch was considered a symbol of sinfulness, ignorance, and also meant people who had not yet converted to Christianity), and he has a golden cloth with demons woven on it between his legs. The head is crowned with a crown, the hands are decorated with gold bracelets. In one of them, he holds a bulky golden helmet. Who could he be?

One of the most common (albeit unprovable) versions is that we are facing a devilish retinue who is eager to intervene the course. This is indicated by the expression of obvious hostility on their faces, somewhat reminiscent of the characters of Christ Carrying the Cross, Ghent; and only their leader does not express anger, but looks at the baby with inexplicable slyness.

Other versions admit that this magus is Balaam from the Book of Numbers, who predicted the appearance of the Messiah, but then turned from a prophet into a false teacher, being tempted. He stumbled, but now he expects mercy from Christ. In the background, above the roof of the barn, someone is just pulling a donkey: this may be a reminder of the notorious Balaam’s donkey, which resisted and did not want to move forward, and then spoke. This version is presented by Walter Bosing, author of the book “Hieronymus Bosch, C. 1450-1516: Between Heaven and Hell” with reference to an unpublished paper by Charles Scillia.

Another version says that King Herod and his spies entered the stable.
Scientist Nicholas Bohm (the BBC filmed The Mysteries of Hieronymus Bosch on the basis of his research) believes that the man is the progenitor of Christ, King David. His naked figure, adorned with gold and covered with a flaming cloak, is a reminder of the Old Testament episode of the transfer of the ark of God, when “David was dancing before the Lord with all his might” (2 Samuel 6,12 et seq.).

Still, there is no “correct” version, which makes the triptych one of the most mysterious works of Bosch and the most unusual Adoration of the Magi in the history of European art.

See also The adoration of the Magi from Philadelphia painting (attributed to Bosch, but rather painted in his workshop and completed after his death).

Author: Anna Vcherashniaya