Taking a Look at The Adoration of the Kings by Jan Gossaert
Updated: Jul 20, 2020
The room in which this painting hangs in the National Gallery always tends to be a bit of a "cut through" room. I have no idea why, but there's always plenty of people walking through it; I just never see many people stopping to have a look what's actually there. Perhaps there are none of the blockbusters that everybody knows, but how and why are people walking past this?
What always amazes me is the condition of the painting, it's barely changed from the day it was finished in the 16th century.
The Adoration of the Kings by Jan Gossaert was painted during a period which has come to be dominated by the great Italian artists such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian and Veronese. Flemish, Dutch, German and French artists were all producing some fine of art during this period as well, and it's a shame they are often overlooked.
Jan Gossaert, a French-speaking painter from the Low Countries was actually the first Dutch and Flemish painter to visit Italy (1508-9) and no doubt brought back plenty of elements and ideas over to Northern Europe. From this period onwards, he was employed by members of the Habsburg family, heirs to the Valois Duchy of Burgundy.
And this has to be one of his finest works, The Adoration of the Kings (1510-1515). We are instantly drawn to Mary in the centre wearing a vibrant blue cloak, painted with pigments from expensive lapis lazuli. Her vibrant, bronze shiny curls fall on her shoulders, down towards Jesus who sits on her lap, with equally beautiful soft blonde curls. They don't appear to be in a manger as you might expect, but rather what seems to be a dilapidated structure of some sort. They both accept a chalice filled with gold coins from Caspar, one of the three kings who have come to visit them.
We know it's him as his name is engraved on the lid of the chalice he has set on the floor next to his very fine hat. Take a moment to admire his fur cloak. Zooming in you can see Gossaert has painted each individual hair.
Over on the left hand side of the painting we have the second king Balthazar, getting ready to present his gift to the mother and child.
I just adore the detail that Gossaert has put into his crown, a real piece of art on its own - the embroidery, the floral details and the minute little pearls, it completely captivates me. Do you think something like this actually existed or is it from Gossaert's imagination? You can also see that the artist has helpfully labelled this king as well. If you look up near the top, on the red strip of material, you can just about make out the name Balthazar. We are also reminded of the artist here, if you look on the red border just to the left of his eye you can make out Gossaert has featured his own name as well.
Over on the right hand side we have the final king Melchior sporting some very fine red leggings who seems to have out done his companions going on the size of his gift.
But hey, where's dad? Joseph has been forgotten about it seems, as he almost doesn't make it into the picture. If you look just to the left of Mary you can see a man in red barely noticeable.
He actually looks like he's keeping out the way of his own accord! I can imagine him walking backwards, very slowly, one step at a time, to make sure no one realised he's even left. But look just to the right, between the grey stone and the red wall you will notice another figure. Barely visible in the tiny crack is another angel, only fairly recently spotted. He places his hand on his heart, and you catch a glimpse of his wing above him, it's another curious component of the painting.
Everyone in the painting is trying to get a better look. From out of the window on the left hand side, to right in a centre at the back of the painting where two people gaze over the gate. They are being joined by angels up in the sky, nine of them to be exact, perhaps representing the nine orders of angels and even some dogs on the ground.
The one on the right is particularly curious for me as he looks a little out of place, possibly added last minute to fill a hole. This is probably there to show the artists awareness of what's going on in the art world at the time. As this dog is copied directly from Dürer's famous engraving of the miraculous conversion of Saint Eustace (1500-1).
Dürer was a contemporary of Gossaert form Germany and today a more well known artist.
Gossaert was obviously very happy with his creation, I've already pointed out where he signed the piece of Balthazar's headdress, but he also includes a second on a collar worn by one of his attendants.
If you look to the second black man in the painting, behind Balthazar and zoom in on his collar, you can see the artist's second signature. Do you think this had any significance? Perhaps Gossaert picked these two out as his favourites, the most intriguing. Maybe he knew the men, perhaps they were his servants and posed for this painting.
Make sure to visit the wonderful National Gallery website and make full use of their "zoom" function on this painting, it mean's you can actually see everything I mention in an incredible amount of detail. The link for this painting is here.
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