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The adoration of the Magi

Painting, 1481, 246×243 cm

Description of the artwork «The adoration of the Magi»

Like any other work of Leonardo da Vinci, "Adoration of the Magi" (1481) is shrouded in many secrets and conjectures. This is one of the earliest works: at the time of its creation, the artist was 29 years old. The wooden panel, almost two and a half square meters in size, was intended for the main altar of the church of San Donato in Sopeto, but da Vinci left for Florence for Milan, never finishing work on the order of the Augustinian monks. It took 15 years before they transferred it to another artist - Filippino Lippi, who presented his version "Adoration of the Magi" in 1496.

Da Vinci borrowed the general composition for the altarpiece from Botticelli, who created picture based on this gospel story a few years earlier. Coincidence or not, it is believed that the far right character in Leonardo's work may be a self-portrait of the artist himself, just as the figure located in the same place in Botticelli's painting is also recognized as his self-portrait.

In addition, both works are united by a stable pyramidal basis of the composition and an extreme crowd of characters. But, in contrast to the chamber, almost claustrophobic atmosphere of Botticelli's work, da Vinci's panel is marked by a high horizon line, which significantly adds air. Even though some background scenes unfold against the backdrop of the main action.

In general, the mood of the picture bears little resemblance to the associations usually evoked by the plot of the Birth of Christ: a quiet starry night, the star of Bethlehem in the sky, showing the way to the Magi, a modest stable and manger. Although at the time of writing "Adoration of the Magi" da Vinci, there really were somewhat different icon painting traditions (1, 2, 3), but even with this in mind, too much is happening on the panel: it seems that you are about to start hearing the hum of dozens of voices.

Among the chaos of people and horses, two trees statically rise, ordering and grounding the stormy composition: a palm tree and a carob. The plant symbolism is quite transparent. The palm tree is associated with an episode of the Gospel, when its branches paved the way for Jesus, who entered Jerusalem on a donkey a week before the Crucifixion. Like laurel, this tree marked the triumph of the victor: that is, the birth of Christ meant the victory of Christianity over pagan beliefs.

Carob fruits have long been valued for the fact that their weight has always been constant, which is why they could be used as a measure of weight. In particular, for especially valuable things, such as precious stones, jewelry or metals, therefore, the plant symbolizes the highest, royal power, recalling the words of Holy Scripture that Christ is the King of Kings.

Two more similar trees, only smaller, very young, grow on the ruins of an ancient temple in the background. It is most often interpreted as a symbol of the near end of paganism (and the palm tree and carob only strengthen this symbolism). However, some researchers see this building as more than just ruins.

At the beginning of this century, Maurizio Seracini conducted an extensive study of Da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi. With the help of infrared radiation, he took almost two and a half thousand pictures, thanks to which it became possible to see the artist's original idea, hidden under the upper layer of paint. Which, according to Seracini, was actually applied by someone else, not very talented, hand at least half a century after da Vinci finished work on the panel.

So, in these pictures, the missing bull and donkey appear along with part of the roof of the barn, and the face of one of the Magi, twisted in a strange grimace over the right shoulder of the Virgin, is initially filled with majesty and tranquility. The two horsemen in the background were actually participants in a full-fledged horse battle, and builders are found on the stairs of the destroyed building, engaged in its reconstruction.

Seracini claims that in the original drawing by da Vinci, the similarity of the architecture of the ancient temple with the buildings of Ancient Egypt becomes obvious. This is indicated by the design of the capital - the upper part of the column, created in the form of a lotus flower. The researcher believes that the artist's intention was to show that the pagan sanctuary is in the process of being rebuilt into a new structure on the ancient Egyptian model.

Fans of the conspiracy theory happily took this version as confirmation of the conspiracy theory described in Dan Brown's book The Da Vinci Code, according to which da Vinci was a member of the Knights Templar and was the keeper of their ancient secret about the descendants of Christ. Allegedly, after the dissolution of the original order, in reality, it was secretly reconstructed, which should symbolize the mysterious building on the "Adoration of the Magi". But Seracini, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper in 2005, rejected such assumptions and said that he had never read Brown's book.

The author: Natalia Azarenko
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About the artwork

Art form: Painting

Subject and objects: Religious scene

Style of art: Renaissance

Technique: Oil

Materials: Wood

Date of creation: 1481

Size: 246×243 cm

Artwork in selections: 23 selections