The Adoration of the Magi
ANTWERP MANNERIST, circa 1520
Panel painting, oil on wood, cradling on the reverse
Height: 109 cm, width: 70.5 cm
Provenance: private collection, Southern Germany
Literature: Max J. Friedländer: Die Antwerpener Manieristen von 1520. In: Jahrbuch der königlich preußischen Kunstsammlungen 36 (1915), pp. 65–91.
See the publications of the exhibition ExtravagAnt! A forgotten Chapter of Antwerp Painting 1500-1530, Koninklijk Museum vor Schone Kunsten Antwerp, 15 October – 31 December 2005, Antwerp 2005. URL: https://www.codart.nl/guide/agenda/extravagant-antwerpse-schilderijen-voor-de-europese-markt-1500-1525/
The painting of the Adoration of the Magi was created around 1520 by a painter from the group of the so-called Antwerp Mannerists.
The scene is set in the ruins of a richly decorated temple, which offers a view of a city with a surrounding mountainous landscape in the background. In the centre sits Mary, with brown hair and a dark blue cloak. The Infant Jesus on her lap seems touchingly small and delicate. Joseph, with grey hair and beard, is standing behind the two of them, obviously absorbed in conversation with one of the companions of the Wise Men. The holy kings, who present their gifts in filigree decorated gold vessels, symbolize both the three continents known at that time and the three ages of men. The king kneeling to the right in front of mother and child stands for Europe and the old age, the king placed on the left, with turban and an orientally dressed servant in the background, represents Asia and the middle age, while the black king at the right side embodies Africa and youth.
The term Antwerp Mannerists, introduced by the art historian Max J. Friedländer, covers a number of artists from the first third of the 16th century who practiced an extremely decorative and detailed style, which was not, however, influenced by the Italian Mannerism of the time, but had developed from the late Gothic traditions of early Netherlandish painting, which is characterised by its attention to detail, up to the quasi-photorealistic reproduction of surface structures and landscapes.
The great success of Antwerp Mannerism was closely linked to the rise of Antwerp to one of the most flourishing commercial centres in Europe. Around 1500, the city was a central hub of international trade. This also fuelled the art market and offered ideal conditions for painters who created their altars and panel paintings specifically for export.
The theme of the Adoration of the Kings was particularly suitable for this, as it was very popular and in demand throughout Europe. The depiction of the three wise men opened up a multitude of creative possibilities, starting with the imaginative design of exotic garments, which wrapped the figures in extravagant drapery, to the splendid gifts, to the fantastic architecture, which combined Gothic and Renaissance motifs in eclectic splendour.
The style of these compositions is ornate and extravagant, naturalistic reproduction or even realism took a back seat in favour of the decorative effect. Antwerp Mannerism created representative and highly modern showpieces of the period between 1500 and 1530 - a "fashion statement", so to speak, of this turbulent epoch of transition from late Gothic to Renaissance.
The painterly execution is technically virtuoso. The Antwerp Mannerists paid more attention to the meticulous depiction of a variety of details, some of them densely packed, than to the monumental overall effect of their pictorial compositions. This was and is the secret of the paintings' success: they offer the viewer the opportunity to immerse him or herself in an abundance of interesting supporting scenes and to discover numerous surprising subtleties.
The painting presented here is an excellent example of the artistic skill, precision and inventiveness of the Antwerp Mannerists, who did not sign their paintings and therefore, with few exceptions, are to this day not known by name.