Yesterday, in the Christian calendar, was the Feast of the Epiphany which is also known as Three Kings’ Day. This day marks the moment when the Three Kings visited Baby Jesus with their gifts and celebrates the revelation that Jesus Christ was the Son of God made Man. The eve before is known as the 12th Night (hence the 12 days of Christmas, that lengthy carol we all know so well and semi-dread come carol service time…)
So what better an opportunity than to look at Jan Gossaert’s ‘Adoration of the Magi (Kings)’ which hangs in room 14 of the National Gallery. There is a lot* I could say about this painting but let’s keep it simple and focus on the three kings themselves.
Taking centre stage, you have the eldest of the three kings known as Casper (although he’s not so old as to take his friendly ghost form yet… (sorry, couldn’t resist!)). Casper brings the gift of gold, more specifically in this case a golden goblet from which Christ picks out one of the many golden (non-chocolate) coins hidden inside.
His expression might seem a little serious at first, but he looks with wonder on bended-knee, his mouth a little open and eyebrows raised as he realises he is gazing upon the small, vulnerable, Son of God made man.
Netherlandish artists tended to portray their sitters warts ‘n all which Gossaert has quite literally done by including a wiry wart on Casper’s cheek.
Why? You ask. Perhaps to separate this mere mortal from the other godly, celestial figures in the painting or perhaps it was just a way of depicting Casper as an elderly man and, no matter how prosperous, he is just as prone to such afflictions as everyone else… who knows, you decide for yourself.
Before we move on to another king, it’s worth having a look at Casper’s clothes. He wears a velvet cloak lined with soft fur which, whilst it may have weighed a ton, is an extremely luxurious garment and certainly befitting of a king. It also indicates the skill of the artist. Being able to reproduce these fabrics in such a detailed and realistic manner was no mean feat and displays Gossaert’s expertise in, and mastery of, painting in oil.
If Casper’s outfit is something to marvel at, then let me introduce on stage right the magnificent Melchior. You can identify him by his rather lovely black velvet slippers (in the Roman fashion) that he so elegantly presents to us.
In his right hand, he effortlessly raises a hefty, elaborate, golden vessel that contains his gift of frankincense. He takes Casper’s fashion sense one step further, choosing to wear a vibrant green tunic decorated with silver threaded leafy patterns and rows of pearls. If this wasn’t enough to compliment his dainty slippers, he has also chosen to wear a lavish cloth of gold cloak lined with ermine. And no king would be without his crown which cannot help but impress, its scarlet hue coordinating perfectly with his fetching red tights.
What a vision of colour. Gossaert must have enjoyed putting this outfit together as he planned his composition.
Melchior is a particularly delicate king, with a lanky frame, elongated fingers and narrow face complete with high cheek bones. He even lifts his left pinky as he gently pulls back his cloak. These qualities and his fashion distinguishes him from the elder Casper kneeling down in front, and the bulkier Balthazar who stands opposite.
On the left stands King Balthazar who brings myrrh from Saba (modern-day South Yemen). He is often depicted as dark-skinned, especially in paintings from Northern Europe. His outfit really is the cream of the crop.
His cloak is made from spotted and striped lynx fur and is edged with an embroidered border of rich jewels and gems. His tunic is also made from cloth of gold and falls heavily to just below his knees.
Balthazar too sports rather elaborate footwear. His yellow boots, which may look a little like thin shopping bags to us now, are in fact made of leather so thin that his toes and toenails can be distinguished. Whilst this particular observation may not have been their main selling point, to wear such fine, soft leather on your feet rather than say, on your hands as a pair of gloves, signifies the king’s immense wealth and life of luxury.
This third king also wears an impressive
crown strewn with pearls and jewels amongst an elaborate twisting gold design. With so many kings in close proximity, he has taken the wise precaution of even putting his name around the top, should it be somehow mixed up with the others.
There is also another name that features on Balthazar’s crown. The artist, Gossaert, has cleverly included his signature within the golden embroidered lettering on the red border that fringes Balthazar’s face.
Whilst this regal catwalk is something to behold and their elaborate outfits exhaust the list of adjectives available in a thesaurus, it is the Virgin Mary and the Christ Child in the centre that truly steal the show.
Mary’s simple yet vibrant blue dress and cloak are painted in one of the most expensive pigments available to artists at the time: Ultramarine Blue. This deep, full-bodied colour stands out in the centre of the composition, contrasting with the kings’ attires which seem fussy and ornamental in comparison.
The blue also isolates and beautifully frames the nude Christ Child who sits naked and innocent on his mother’s knee. The contrast between this infant Son of God and the Three Kings highlights that, despite all their riches, gifts, followers etc, they come to pay homage to this holy, naked, new-born babe.
Gossaert clearly had fun painting all the different textures and materials of the company gathered to visit the Infant Christ and it is so wonderfully executed that the painting itself almost glitters like gold. The hyper-real detail of the piece means you can see every thread, every pearl, even the individual silky soft strands of Christ’s baby hair.
If you find yourself in Trafalgar Square, it’s worth popping in to have a look – it will certainly brighten a particularly dull, grey, post-Christmas day.
* (If you are interested to know more about this painting or simply want to play with the zoom, the National Gallery website actually has a complete online catalogue entry which discusses some of the finer points of the painting.)