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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Painted in 1502-1503, Adoration of the Magi by Raphael Sanzio is a scene depicting the nativity of Jesus Christ with the three wise men or Magi gathered round

Painted using a very subtle single point perspective typical of Raphael's style it depicts the Three Magi or Three Kings as they are more commonly known in the West.

They are gathered round the baby Jesus who is being held in Mary's lap as Joseph looks on. A crowd stands gathered round to see the baby Jesus and they almost fill the canvas with their bright coloured clothes, their horses gathered behind them helping to fill out the scene.

One figure, a shepherd stands to the side holding a lamb which is symbolic of Jesus while the Magi offer their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Adoration of the Magi manages to communicate a feeling of naturalness and has a surprising amount of depth which is helped by the gentle shading and positioning of the people grouped in the scene.

Muted earth tones and greens in the background help bring the bright colourful central scene to the fore. The gathering of people is depicted standing on ground that is almost blank with its lack of detail and this helps to avoid distracting the eye from the figures.

With clever use of highlight and shading Raphael manages to achieve different realistic effects for the material of the clothing the characters wear. The silks shine in the sun, the velvet richly glowing with depth and the coarse material worn by a pious religious man knelt at the feet of the infant Jesus.

Adoration of the Magi was intended to be placed on an altar and the iconic subject matter was a popular theme of the time and also painted by many other great Renaissance painters such as Botticelli and Leonardo da Vinci with equal mastery.

This biblical subject has been used by countless numbers of artists over the centuries, most frequently during the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Some of the most famous artists to have produced their own versions of Adoration of the Magi include Albrecht Durer, Peter Paul Rubens, Pieter Bruegel, Hieronymus Bosch, Leonardo da Vinci and Sandro Botticelli.

Raphael Sanzio was in his early twenties when he completed this painting but manages to convey an impressive maturity in this work and subject matter that belies his age and lack of experience. He had only been painting commissions for two years at this time, the bulk of the work he would do in this period would be religious paintings under commission.