In his lifetime, Florence-based Italian Renaissance painter, Sandro Botticelli (circa 1445 – 1510), was commissioned to paint many biblical scenes.
One that was frequently requested was the Adoration of the Magi. Experts estimate that there are at least seven versions by Botticelli and many more by other Florentine artists, including Botticelli's tutor, Fra Filippo Lippi. Before the 15th Century, it was unusual for this scene to be found on a Florentine altar piece. However, this changed with the growth of confraternities dedicated the Magi in Florence. One of the most powerful of these associations was the Compania dei Magi, the Brotherhood of the Magi, whose members included many of the powerful Medici family, long time patrons of Botticelli.
Every three years The Brotherhood, also known as the Confraternity of the Star, would organise an elaborate procession and pageant for Epiphany. Epiphany, the feast day of the Magi on January 6, celebrates the end of their long journey following the star to Bethlehem in order to honour the birth of Jesus. The Compania dei Magi would re-enact this journey and often hundreds of participants would be involved, parading through the streets of Florence. The Adoration of the Magi reflected these pageants as well as the religious event.
The History behind The Adoration of the Magi
It is not unusual for portraits of the nobility, or members of important families, to be depicted as characters in paintings, particularly those that feature the Magi. Lippi, Gozzoli and Veneziano all included portraits of the Medicis in their three wise men themed paintings, and Botticelli was no exception. This particular rendition of the Adoration of the Magi shows many members of the Medici family as well as a possible self-portrait of Botticelli. It was also the painting that marked the pinnacle of Botticelli's career. According to Giorgio Vasari (1511 – 1574) an Italian writer and historian, it is the painting that made Botticelli's name and brought him to the attention of Rome and other wealthy patrons. Vasari, described as the first art historian, wrote about the painting in "Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects". Vasari was effusive in his praise of the piece; "It is a marvellous work in colour, design and composition." Dating from circa 1476 this rendition of the Adoration of the Magi hasn't strayed far from its birthplace and can be seen at the Uffizi, Florence.
The Adoration of the Magi was commissioned from Botticelli by Italian banker, Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama. It was destined for a Florentine chapel, the Santa Maria Novella. It is unknown whether Gaspare instructed Botticelli to include the many likenesses of the Medici family in it, or whether it was a decision that Botticelli made. Whatever the reason, the result was a work of art that paid homage to a very powerful family. The Medici are not mere bystanders in the painting. Instead, they are transformed into the three wise men and other members of their retinue.
Content of the Painting Explained
The elderly figure of the Magi kneeling reverently at the Virgin's feet, dressed in a richly jewelled and embroidered outfit, has been identified as a representation of Cosimo de' Medici. Placed centrally in the composition is another kneeling figure, this time the Magi is swathed in an ermine-trimmed red cloak. This is likely to be Cosimo's eldest son, Piero. He seems to be looking at the kneeling Magi dressed in white, reputed to be Piero's brother, Giovanni. Clustered around each Magi are their retinues. As Vasari wrote, Botticelli “distinguished the Courts of the three Kings one from another... one can see which are the retainers of each. This is truly a most admirable work, and executed so beautifully... that every craftsman at the present day stands in a marvel thereat.”
Other Medici family members are no doubt portrayed in the Adoration of the Magi but it has been harder to identify them accurately. The figure leaning on his sword, a friend leaning over his shoulder to share a comment, is thought to be one of Cosimo's grandsons, either Lorenzo de' Medici, also known as Lorenzo the Magnificent, or Giuliano. Lorenzo has also been identified as the bare-footed man wearing an embroidered cap and lilac and gold cloak standing behind Cosimo. However, he has also been pointed out as the sombre dark haired man, the red trim of his cloak contrasting richly with its blackness, standing behind Giovanni. The poet Politian may also be one of the figures portrayed.
Who are the Figures within Adoration of the Magi?
Amidst these retinues are other possibly identifiable portraits, including the commissioner of the work, Gaspare. Gaspare, who shares his name with one of the original Magi, is thought to be the old man with white hair. Wearing a light blue robe he's been placed in a group on the right-hand edge of the painting. Rather than gazing at the Madonna and child, he is looking out of the frame. His hand, clutching his cloak, draws the observer's eye to a full length figure standing at the front of the crowd at the edge of the painting. This figure, wrapped in an ochre cloak and gazing rather imperiously towards the observer, is thought to be Botticelli himself.
Whoever all the people in the painting are, there is no doubt that Botticelli gave them all unique characteristics and identities. This was recognised by Vasari when he wrote, “the beauty of the heads in this scene is indescribable, their attitudes all different, some full-face, some in profile, some three-quarters, some bent down, and in various other ways, while the expressions of the attendants, with different expressions for the young and the old, displaying the artist's perfect mastery of his profession.”
Influences upon Sandro Botticelli for this Painting
Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi is a painting that is rich in vitality and interest. Looks are being exchanged and conversations are being carried out between the people gathered to gaze upon the baby Jesus. But alongside this is a sense of devotion and sanctity. Where many earlier works on this theme, including those by his old master, Fra Filippo Lippi, emphasised the pomp and pageantry that such an occasion might muster, Botticelli instead focussed on the religious nature of the scene. The Magi are humble and pious towards the Virgin and her child, kneeling before her raised position as they make their offerings. Their heads are bowed and bodies and hands reach for the divine mystery in front of them. Amidst the sea of colour and movement, the Virgin is calmly seated on an island of tranquillity, presenting the Christ child to be adored. Behind her, a figure blending into the background watches over her and the baby. Each figure is an expression of piety, the postures of their hands and bodies revealing devotion, reverence and contemplation.
The Adoration of the Magi is a work embedded with symbolism. The timber framed building offering shelter to the mother and child echoes the stable, the humble birthplace of Christ, but also early wooden framed churches. Behind the Virgin are rocks, hinting at the cave of Christ's burial as well as places of early Christian worship. The magnificent landscape of ruined stone arches and the crumbling stone wall supporting the wooden structure, bring to mind classical Roman temples and the growth of Christian philosophy rising from the ashes of paganism.
Botticelli also draws the viewer deliberately into the scene. Looking at this painting it is easy to imagine becoming part of the crowd paying homage to the baby. A few more steps and you would be part of the scene. Although not overtly welcoming, faces in the crowd are turned to the viewer indicating an awareness of the world away from the devotions and the possibility of that world entering the scene.
The Adoration of the Magi is a painting that invites you to study it and to explore it and to find something new every time you look at it.
Tom Gurney in an art history expert. He received a BSc (Hons) degree from Salford University, UK, and has also studied famous artists and art movements for over 20 years. Tom has also published a number of books related to art history and continues to contribute to a number of different art websites. You can read more on Tom Gurney here.