Despite the artwork being unfinished, Leonardo da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi tells us much more about the artist's life than many completed pieces. There are a number of study drawings which have been connected to this piece, enabling us to learn much about the early phases of his work. There is also documentation still remaining which explains his original contract, and the terms of payment and reward that he would receive for this particular commission. He abandoned another project in order to take on this work, but ultimately chose to leave Florence and allow other artists to take on this work.
It is not known if those who commissioned this work, namely the Augustinian monks of San Donato, would ever actually have received this piece. It remained within a private home for a number of years, and eventually would make its way into the collection of the Uffizi in Florence, Italy. It remains on display there today, and few artists would have an unfinished piece such as this given quite as much exposure as Da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi has enjoyed. Da Vinci himself remains regarded as one of the most critical minds in human history, combining artistic brilliance with inventive ideas and a thirst for knowledge.
We was able to combine different genres within his work, having mastered each of them by the time he entered his mature period, some years after working on Adoration of the Magi. He combined portraiture with religious themes, before adding architectural and landscape details within impressive precision. His use of subtle blends also marked him out as particularly unique, producing lifelike qualities in many of his completed artworks. Adoration of the Magi does not contain those intricate layers of oil, but instead demonstrates how he would construct these items from initial charcoal or chalk sketches, before applying oils over the top at a later date.
Our article below examines every last detail about Adoration of the Magi, first explaining the origins of the topic itself, before then examining Da Vinci's own contribution. Many of the Renaissance artworks have experienced mixed fortunes in the centuries that have passed since, and this piece is no different in that regard. Thankfully, it was restored fairly recently and so now much of the detail can be enjoyed once more, when for a number of years it was harder to see and appreciate the contributions originally made by Da Vinci himself. It also came fairly early on in his career, providing an insight into the influences that were left from his time as an apprentice.
Table of Contents
- What is The Adoration of the Magi?
- Size and Medium
- Other interpretations of the Adoration of the Magi
- Large Image of the Painting
When placed alongside Da Vinci's other early paintings, this composition was by far his most complex and it is a crying shame that he chose to move on to Milan and allow the commission to be passed on. He had only received commissions for religious themes up to that point, and so this was a continuation along that path. He was also still strongly connected to the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio and so at this stage we were not yet exposed to the artist's full potential and creativity. Small clues would be found during this period as to what lie ahead, but he was still building his confidence and experience as an artist.
Da Vinci's travels would help to bring this transformation about, but also simply the act of repetition and practice in his wide ranging artistic skills. For researchers and historians, Adoration of the Magi is actually helpful in how we can look below the surface of his work, seeing these early stages of development, particularly when combined with a number of study drawings which sit alongside this oil work. The great master's career has been examined in extraordinary detail over the centuries, with this piece alone having been subjected to X-Ray photography and other modern research techniques in order to learn as much about it as possible. We include much of that information within this article.
What is The Adoration of the Magi?
The Adoration of the Magi is derived from a passage in the Bible, namely Matthew 2:11, which states that:
"...On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another path..."
This short passage required some embellishment from artists, and so they would slowly take in other sources of inspiration for their depictions of this scene. These artworks would then influence the next generations of artists, with each one learning from what had gone before in terms of symbolism, composition and style, before then appending some of their own ideas on top. Da Vinci was no different in that regard, although he was particularly strong in bringing in his own innovations, even in the early part of his career when he was still heavily influenced by his time working as an apprentice in the school of Andrea del Verrocchio.
In 1481, Leonardo da Vinci received a commission to paint a scene of the Adoration of the Magi from Augustinian monks of San Donato, Scopeto, Florence, Italy. The artist completed the early stages of this project, as can be seen in this page, but then moved to Milan and the commission was re-assigned to Filippino Lippi who eventually completed his own version. Sadly, there were several other works such as this within Da Vinci's career that, for a multitude of reasons, were never finished.
We do know that Leonardo's father was involved with the running of this monastery, and must surely have helped his son to acquire the original commission. Quite how it came to the point where Leonardo left the city and abandoned the project, after doing likewise with another project, it is unclear. Throughout the Renaissance it must be remembered that many projects would be completed in collaboration, or switched from one artist to another and so this situation was not uncommon.
Some evidence emerged from the later version of Adoration of the Magi which suggested that the abandonment of Da Vinci's version was not really his fault. The later contract was amended significantly, suggesting that the original agreement that was made with Da Vinci was not entirely fair, and some of the terms made it hard for the artist to complete his work on time. This came from legal agreements which sat alongside the main contract of employment which was Filippino Lippi who successfully completed the oil painting as requested.
Da Vinci's early work was all related to religious themes, in part due to the background of his donors (see Annunciation, The Virgin and Child with Saint Anne). Over time, however, he would start to attract other groups and private individuals who had different requirements - this allowed the artist to experiment with new genres, or make use of some of the other skills and techniques that he had learnt during his time in the studio of Andrea del Verrocchio. Clearly, Adoration of the Magi represents the former, with a composition which follows Biblical scripture, but with the additional flourishes of creativity from this budding apprentice.
Much has been made of the exchange in influence between Italy and the low countries during the 15th century, in an artistic sense, and we see that here again with Da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi. Many academics believe that his work was influenced by elements of Rogier van der Weyden's Entombment of Christ (sometimes known as the Lamentation of Christ), which itself was completed in around 1460. It is specifically the background which fades into the distance, the construction of a central figure in front of a rock formation as well as the angle of viewpoint from which we see this content. There is enough supporting evidence to back this claim, but also enough differences to refute it too. Both artworks remain in the Uffizi today, allowing you to compare them in person and make up your own mind. One can also draw some comparisons with Fra Angelico's Pieta.
Three different preparatory drawings for Adoration of the Magi remain from Leonardo da Vinci's career, which is an unusually large number. Typically, his study pieces were lost or damaged in the centuries that have passed since, or they were not connected to any particular painting. Of the three drawings left for this piece, one was a rough outline of the overall composition, another a detailed depiction of a horse and rider which made it into the next phase of the project, and also an experiment with perspective for the purposes of delivering the architectural features across the background of the painting.
Da Vinci was very much learning his craft at this stage, and all of his paintings in this period would contain multiple amendments, as he worked towards the final image. This obsessive perfectionist would also regularly practice and refine his talents as a draughtsman, sometimes without any particular artwork in mind. Historians have spent centuries trawling through his drawings, deciding upon which came from his hand alone, and also to determine whether they fit with a later painting, which the three mentioned here do. As the artist's experience grew it is likely that he did not feel the need to adjust his details as much as he did earlier on.
Leonardo da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi from 1481 features the Virgin and Child centrally, in the near foreground. A whole plethora of other figures are then added in a variety of poses and postures, whilst proclaiming their love and respect for the two central figures. Virgin and Child are sat down, with the baby just perched on his mother's left leg. They are placed upon a rocky structure, with a tall tree placed just behind. There is also some buildings placed in the background, along with a horse and rider plus a number of other figures. Mountains continue into the far distance, setting the mood for this scene which comes directly from the Bible.
The three kings, critical to this story, are kneeling close by, having arrived after following the Star of Bethlehem. The baby reaches out his hand to bless one of the kings, having received his gift. There are then a number of others placed around the mother and child, offering their respect in their own way. Academics have attempted to identify some of these other figures, with Joseph likely to be an aged men pictured close by. Some of the supporting figures are looking upwards, potentially in the direction of the Star of Bethlehem which was key to the kings locating the Virgin and Child in previous passages of the Bible.
The composition was amongst the artist's most daring and complex, combining different genres together alongside a wealth of detail in every corner of the piece. Perhaps this explains how it went unfinished, potentially too bold to be delivered within the agreed timescale. We cannot analyse Da Vinci's work here too aggressively because many more alterations may have been made had the project contined. A relatively recent restoration has enabled us to see more of his original work, though, and a number of the figures were delivered in good detail. We certainly can learn about how the artist planned to tackle a common theme within the Renaissance, as well as point to where the influences upon his version had come (van der Weyden, Fra Angelo).
Many elements of the composition are believed to have been inspired by the work of Rogier van der Weyden, as possibly also by Fra Angelico. Specifically the rock formation on which the main figures are located is laid out in a similar manner to van der Weyden's Entombment of Christ from 1460. The angle of view is also fairly similar and we do know that Da Vinci studied a number of North European and Italian artists for inspiration throughout his own lifetime. The architecture in the background was carefully planned and entirely innovative, however, with Da Vinci practicing the angles of these features in various study drawings.
He was interested in architectural drawing from an early age, and was keen to include elements of this within the backgrounds of some of his paintings. The same could be said for his rolling hills too, as found in the likes of Portrait of Ginevra de Benci and Annunciation. In comparing this composition to others from this early period in Da Vinci's career, it can be said that it was certainly his most complex design. Although oils were not added, we can still understand much about what he had intended, as the figures are well formed and the overall structure of the work is there for all to see.
The meanings delivered in this piece refer directly to the scripture found in Matthew 2:11, regarding the Adoration of the Magi, or Kings. Da Vinci's work is therefore simply to expand upon this short passage within this complex painting, and to narrate the point at which the kings arrive and deliver their gifts to the Virgin and Child. This content therefore sits centrally, with other figures then placed around to add to the atmosphere of the moment. Most elements within this painting, therefore, are more for supporting and aesthetic value rather than bringing anything new to the story.
Leonardo da Vinci's Adoration of the Magi can be found in the Uffizi in Florence, Italy. This important institution remains one of the finest locations from which to view Renaissance art and they also have considerable resources available to preserve and protect their impressive collection, with historians, researchers and scientists on hand to help out. They also own another early Da Vinci painting, namely Annunciation, as well as some other notable additions such as Ognissanti Madonna by Giotto, Rucellai Madonna by Duccio and also Santa Trinita Maestà by Cimabue.
The work completed by the artist on this incomplete piece is dated to around c. 1478–1482, which places it fairly near the start of his career. Da Vinci would have been in his mid to late twenties at the time of this work and up to that point had been working on religious themes, but was now starting to look elsewhere for inspiration. Those commissioning his services were likely to have forced this concentration on themes from the Bible, but he would start to attract donors from other parts of society, who had different requirements and challenges for the artist. He would also travel around the country from time to time, which led to some projects being incomplete or taken on by others after he had moved away.
Size and Medium
Adoration of the Magi by Leonardo da Vinci is sized at 246 cm × 243 cm (97 in × 96 in), and the artist would have chosen this large size in order to be able to add all the detail necessary for this complex composition. Large numbers of full length portraits were to be added throughout the painting, and each one required considerable time in order to ensure consistency across the piece. Oils were added over the original outlines but as the painting was left incomplete, it is hard to be too sure about the mediums intended to be used by Da Vinci as the development phases progressed.
Other interpretations of the Adoration of the Magi
The Adoration of the Magi has been a popular sight within art history for centuries, and Da Vinci was far from unusual in depicting this theme within his work. Whilst this piece was ultimately unfinished, there have been many fine examples from other artists, including Filippino Lippi who is believed to have taken on the original project himself, after Da Vinci became unable to finish his own work. The theme has proven particularly popular within both Italy and also North European art from around the time of the Renaissance.
There were memorable contributions from the likes of van der Weyden, Gentile da Fabriano, Hugo van der Goes, Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi, to name just a few, and with religious content being so dominant at this time, it was almost inevitable for artists to cover this theme at some point in their career. A quick browse of those alternative depictions also reminds us of just how varied the interpretations would be, even though they were spread across a relatively short period of time. Da Vinci himself wanted to break away from some of the norms with his own version, but that raised eyebrows amongst those paying for the project. See also Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantegna.
Over the centuries, this painting had acquired large amounts of dirt and dust which has recently been cleaned away thanks to a carefully planned restoration project which was carried out by its owners, the Uffizi in Florence, Italy. This exceptionally valuable item in their collection would not be touched without careful consideration and it was eventually deemed in the painting's best interest to receive various treatments by a team of trained experts.
This remedial work should help to extend the lifetime of this piece, with the overall structure of the piece also strengthened. Upon unveiling the restored artwork, many claimed that Da Vinci's original work on the Adoration of the Magi was now much clearer, helping visitors from a distance to now discern some of his original touches of charcoal which had previously been very feint in appearance, merging with elements of varnish and oil that were added after Da Vinci's own contribution.
Large Image of the Painting
See below for a detailed image of the original painting, though the incomplete nature of this work can make it hard to discern individual elements of the composition. Restoration work has helped to brighten up the piece, and for those looking to understand more about how it might have looked if it had been finished, then perhaps refer to the likes of Filippino Lippi who took on this project after Da Vinci had relocated. Although Da Vinci's version is feintly done, there is actually plenty of detail across it, allowing us to get a good idea of the original composition and how it might have looked, even though as an artwork in its own right, it is not in an ideal state for viewing by the public from a distance.