Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Adoration of the Magi

Title: The Adoration of the Magi

Artist: Quentin Massys

Medium: Oil on wood

Size: 103 x 80 cm

Date: 1526

Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Matthew 2:11 chronicles how the wise men, on coming to the house, saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.

That the Magi offer Jesus both homage and standard gifts from the East fits Eastern practices; for instance, royal courts there used frankincense and myrrh (though these spices also had many other uses). The Magi's homage to Jesus may reflect biblical language alluding to the pilgrimage and homage of nations in Psalm 72:10 or Isaiah 60:6. Regardless, this homage reinforces the point of the narrative: if God's people will not honor Jesus, former pagans will.

This intentionally claustrophobic composition is characteristic of works produced by the first generation of Renaissance painters in Antwerp. The scene is viewed up close, with half-length, gesticulating figures separated from the viewer by a fictive ledge. Finely wrought goldsmith work—such as was actually produced in Antwerp—abounds. The caricature-like features of the Magi and their retinue reveal Massys's interest in the extreme physiognomic types popularized by Leonardo da Vinci and made available to Northern artists through prints. It was this interest in the psychology of physiognomy that made Massys such a gifted portraitist.

Quentin Massys, also spelled Matsys, Metsys, or Messys (b. 1465, Leuven, d. 1530, Antwerpen), was a Flemish artist considered the first important painter of the Antwerp school. We are not told expressly by whom Massys was taught, but his style seems to have derived from the lessons of Dirk Bouts, who brought to Leuven the influence of Memling and van der Weyden. When Massys settled at Antwerp at the age of twenty-five, his own style contributed importantly to reviving Flemish art along the lines of van Eyck and van der Weyden.

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