A glance at the many paintings with The Three Magi as subject matter reveals them all showing the three kings in adoration before the Child and Mary. Joseph is not always shown, and neither are the ox and the ass. What varies most is the number of figures: paintings tend to get more baroque as the number of figures increases. There is much variation in background matter, which can be any sort of shelter, ranging from a cave, a stable or an inn, to a house.
Altarpiece of the Virgin, Jacques Darat, 1433
This painting is an altarpiece, meant for public display, and there is nothing humble about this Holy Family. Mary’s cloak is embroidered with gold thread; her skin has the delicate bloom of a French noblewoman of the time. The stable appears to come equipped with a plush red armchair for her to sit on. This is the venerated Mary of the medieval Catholic church, second only to her Son.
Journey of the Magi, James Tissot, 1894
Tissot was not a religious man, and strictly speaking this painting is really only an excuse to show the grandeur of the highland country near Jerusalem/Bethlehem, and the magnificent Arab kings as they may have looked, travelling in search of Jesus.
Adoration of the Magi, Leonardo da Vinci, 1481
Critics and antiquarians have spent many hours on this drawing/painting, attempting to work out what parts of it were painted by da Vinci, and what parts were the work of a later hand. No matter. The superb drawing and composition are unmistakably Da Vinci’s.
The painting pulses with energy. There is a sense of barely controlled chaos in the people, animals and landscape – but at the centre, holding it all together, is the still, calm figure of Mary, and a chubby, unconcerned Baby Jesus.
Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423
The altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi is Fabriano’s most famous painting. Contrast its lavish intricacy with Gauguin’s painting of a Polynesian Mary (further up this page) and you will see the evolution of religious painting at a glance. Which do you like better?
Pieter Bruegel, 1564
True to form, there is not too much physical beauty in Bruegel’s painting of the Nativity. Even here he will not idealize the scene.
One interesting point is the sleeve-length of the king in the left foreground — overlong to show extravagant use of rich material, and to signal that the owner never has to do any sort of practical work – though there is obviously some slit in the sleeve for the wearer’s hand to pass through. But kneeling before this tiny baby, the king has discarded his sceptre and crown.
Adoration of the Kings, Hendrik ter Brugghen, 1619
The richly garbed kings are full of gravity and reverence as they offer their gifts – Brugghen suggests they knew very well how momentous is the birth of this little child. And what a sweet child, grasping at the gift as any baby would.
Peter Paul Rubens, 1634
Ruben’s Mary is no peasant girl, but a sumptuously dressed queen holding her little prince. The painting has the luscious colours Rubens was noted for – especially gold and red, the colours of triumph – and this is a triumphal scene, with a doctrinal message: Jesus is the Prince of Heaven, with kings as his subjects.
Fat little cherubs hover above.