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adoration of the magi (1489-90), leonardo da vinci

Artist: Leonardo da Vinci

Technique: Oil on wood

Dimensions: 246 × 243 cm

Year: 1489–1490

Location of creation:

Current Location: Uffizi, Florence, Italy

Movements: High Renaissance

Theme: Biblical

Subject: Baby Christ with Mary, along with the three magi

painting summary

One of Da Vinci’s earliest paintings, this unfinished painting is considered one of the key works of the Renaissance. Despite its common subject, during that time, this shows the intricacies of Leonardo’s works, his creative process and his knowledge about composition.

general description

The unfinished work by Leonardo da Vinci, still in an underpainting stage, is composed of a complex agglomeration of figures and elements in tones of umber, dark ochres and blacks. Almost square in format, the work displays an interlocking group of various elements, including an architectural scene, animals caught in action, and vegetation, in the midst of which, in a central position, the main figures are depicted. At this central foreground, the Virgin Mary holds baby Jesus, surrounded by various ambiguous figures in adoration. The Three Kings, who followed the Star of Bethlehem from the East worship the Child; the specific identification of the three kings within the picture is still debated: the bearded figure bowing low (left foreground) is speculated to be King Caspar, the kneeling man beside him King Melchior and King Balthazar in the right foreground with his gift of frankincense. Grouped in a semicircle around the Virgin are a number of individuals. The older man behind and at the left side of the Virgin is meant to be Joseph.  The other figures either belong to the King’s group, or are unidentified angels observing the scene. The background is composed of multiple undefined figures, forming a semicircle, including a shepherd boy who’s facing away from the central scene. To the left, in the background, is a pagan building in ruins, which workmen seem to be repairing and on the opposite side are men on horseback at war in a rocky landscape.

Virgin and Child with St Anne (1503)

The work is largely considered one of the most progressive and innovative works of Florentine painting; portraying a common subject for the time, its importance is also associated to this very significant Christian Biblical scene  (the moment when Christ is presented to the three kings whom all accept him as God’s son, kneeling before him with gifts in a gesture of validation, celebration and acceptance); it is widely considered a key work of the Renaissance, and despite being incomplete, it is a fundamental and rare work that clearly shows Leonardo’s creative process; despite being considered to be one of his strangest creations, it is an essential key to unlocking his thought pattern and his creative artistic knowledge.

The painting was commissioned by the Augustinian monks of San Donato in Scopeto in Florence, for the high altar of the Augustinian church located just outside of Florence. It is believed that as Leonardo’s father worked for the monastery’s business affairs, he had an influential part in securing the commission, since as a young artist, Leonardo struggled to be noticed and become established in Florence, and he was relatively unknown. It is one of the only of Leonardo’s works from the Florentine period documented with a contract, testifying the importance of the commission. The contract was drawn up in July 1481, stating that Leonardo had been commissioned by the monks in March of the same year, a few months earlier, to paint a panel for their high altar. The work was to be completed within 24 months (at the most 30 months) of the contract. The terms of the contract made Leonardo financially responsible for acquiring materials, paints and pigments in advance, which (as some sources claim) made it difficult for the artist to fulfill, and could be one of the reasons why the work was left unfinished. According to author Zollner, “the artist was not to blame for the unsatisfactory way in which the commission ended”. The strange narrative created by Leonardo led to speculations that the Augustinian convent of San Donato in Scopeto wanted to use the picture to convey its own theological interpretation of the Adoration theme, which would make the work a very specific commission; however, this has not been proved to be true; on the contrary, the work is more likely to be a creative construction of Leonardo’s, to fulfill a standard and common subject for altarpieces in Religious spaces. The commission was later passed on to Filippino Lippi. The resulting work of the same title, Adoration of the Maggi, was completed in 1496.

Adoration of the Maggi (1496), Filippino Lippi

The Adoration of the Magi (c. 1450), Fra Angelico, Fra Filippo Lippi

It is speculated that Leonardo abandoned working on the painting of St Jerome (c.1480-1482) to work on the commission of the Adoration of the Maggi. He then abandoned this painting in 1428/83, a year after receiving the commission, when he left Florence to go to Milan. Due to his inability to deliver, the commission was handed over to Filippino Lippi for completion, in 1496.  It is not known if the painting reached the monks of San Donato, who had originally commissioned it. It is known, however, that it was probably located (after 1529) in the home of Amerigo Benci in Florence, where Vasari must have seen it. From 1621 onwards it was in possession of the Medicci’s, who placed it in the Uffizi in 1670 where it still remains today, having only been transferred to a Medicci villa in Castello in 1753 for about 50 years. It is considered to be in generally good conditions (although the paint around the edges has begun to crumble). However, during the 18th and 19th century, the painting was covered with various coats of varnish, covering up a lot of the composition of the lower half of the painting.

Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (c. 1480)

intrinsic content

The Roman building is thought to be the Basilica of Maxentius, which according to legends and mythology, would crumble on the night of the birth of a child to a virgin mother; ruins were also a frequently used symbol of the loss of paganism after the birth of Christ. Besides these symbolical architectural associations, the fauna also has a fundamental symbology; the palm tree in the background universally symbolizes the Tree of Life; in biblical terms, it symbolizes the Virgin Mary, due to the phrase ‘You are stately as a palm tree’ from the Song of Solomon; in ancient Rome, the palm tree is also a symbol of victory (triumph over death). The Carob Tree, the other tree in the painting, from the carob family, has associations with precious stones and riches, as its seeds are used as units of measurement for jewels; connecting to the crowns of the kings, it suggests Christ as the King of Kings. Frankincense, the gift being given by second King, is a symbol of the Christs’s sacrificial death on the cross, thus the painting establishes a direct connection with the liturgical celebrations being conducted beneath it. Margit Lisner (1981) sees the presentation of the frankincense by the second king as a connection/symbol of the Sacrifice of Christ (which was celebrated at the altar), acting as a link between the altarpiece and the Eucharist. The architecture is understood as a symbol/reference of King David and to the Old Testament. Some interpretations believe that this is also a building site, in which perspective the bearded figure standing in front of the steps is the architect, and the unclothed figures are the workers. In both cases, the symbology of the architecture is that of a constructed world by man, the building of a ‘temple’. Lastly, with the complex background, by placing armed horsemen, pleading men, and collapsing buildings and rocks, Leonardo gives a historical context to the Biblical scene which can symbolically represent the Pagan world supplanted by the Christian world.

Detail of the tree

Detail of the horses

The puzzling scenes in the background, the equestrian battles and the unfinished staircase are all elements that create a complex narrative, unlike those expected for the traditional scene. It is speculated that he included himself, a young artist, in one of the figures in the background, making a strange and mysterious cross-timeframe reference. An interesting possible mysterious interpretation can be given to the Three Kings, who can metaphorically represent Mankind submitting to the divine, or God, (echoing a universal law of acceptance and surrender). In this perspective, the work is a tribute/homage to the universal condition of man, rather than a mere historical/biblical narration.

Detail of the magi

 There is a great sense of unity and wholeness, as all of the figures seem to be involved in the event. The figures all display a wide variety of movements, gestures and actions. The horsemen in battle also captured in movement, adding to the complex action and narrative; however they can also be explained from a formalistic point of view, meaning that they are a way of Leonardo painting in his favorite motif; or they may also refer to a popular medieval legend that stated that the three kings had once been enemies.  Joseph, who usually has a subsidiary role, holds the lid open of one of the precious vessels in his right hand, indicating the first King has already given his gift, further clarifying that the painting depicts the moment when the second King presents the gift of frankincense. Some of the figures are looking at the Virgin and Child, but others are looking up at an apparition, probably the Star of Bethlehem (an idea also found in Boticelli’s version of the scene. Although the star is not depicted, its presence is felt, as the viewer is directed to this ‘imaginary’ absent star outside of the picture frame. Besides the looks, a young figure close to the tree points up to heaven or to the star. This gesture was also found in a work by an artist of Fra Angelico’s workshop, entitled Adoration of the Magi, and can be seen to be linked to the narrative seen; another figure shields himself from the divine light.

Detail of figure pointing to heaven and man covering up face from light

Unlike previous depictions of the subject, Leonardo’s work does not depict the scene in a traditional static moment. Rather, Leonardo captures a scene in action, a moment caught in time. It is the beginning of the portrayal of a narrative structure; a story from everyday life, applied to the sacred space. The meaning of the incorporation of this movement, is much deeper than merely aesthetic purposes.

Detail of horses

The composition is constructed around a central, pyramidal grouping of figures; the Virgin Mary and Christ are organized in a pyramid shape, gazing towards the pyramid’s side – a compositional approach that was later used in other of his works. Leonardo also adopts a raised viewpoint and an elevated horizon; combined with the space retreating into the distance and the placement of the central group in a frontal plane, it all possesses compositional similarities with Van der Weyden’s Lamentation of Christ (c. 1460–1463), although it is unlikely that Leonardo was familiar with the work at the time.

Armature grid

The painting is first and foremost a statement of independence from Verochio, as it clearly shows a very unique and definite personal style. Its incomplete status offers a clear insight into Leonardo’s creative process.  Technically, the painting resembles a large painted sketch, where Leonardo has painted the figures and the architectural background. The panel is  made up of ten boards glued together vertically and reinforced by two cross-pieces. Since a peripheral border cannot be seen, it suggests that it was painted without being mounted in a frame. The work clearly shows the importance of the underpainting in Leonardo’s technique, clarifying how it was used to create volume, form and to define the overall composition in a progressive manner.  There are numerous pentimenti found throughout the composition, which clearly show the sketch-like quality and ‘search’ like process of form-finding of the work.  One can easily be seen on the right-edge of the panel where Leonardo has changed his mind about the position of the head of the horse; the horsemen also seem to be two positions, being that one of them is a correction.  The figures that are least developed seem to be the central figures, (Mary, Jesus, the Kings, and Joseph behind them), which reveals that Leonardo started working from the outside in, leaving the central and most important figures for last.  The painting doesn’t have any traces of spolvero, meaning that Leonardo didn’t use a copied cartoon of an original drawing, and it doesn’t appear to have an underdrawing. Studies of the work reveal that in some areas Leonardo has used his hands and fingers to rub the paint.

Various of Leonardo’s early drawings are believed to be linked to the painting, but only two of them are really considered to be preliminary studies. The first is a perspective study known as the Gallichon drawing, for the background of the painting, which already includes the flights of steps of King David’s former palace. This sketch also clarifies and is a testament to the importance of perspective in Leonardo’s work, as clearly shown by the use of perspective lines. Another important study is a drawing of a horse and a rider, created in the same year.

Perspective study for the background of The Adoration of the Magi (c. 1481)

Study for The Adoration of the Magi (1478-1481)

Study of a horse and rider (c. 1481)

Leonardo follows a practice taught in Verrochio’s workshop which uses specific figural types, in this case, young figures and old ones, specially bearded men. The middle age group seems to be entirely missing altogether. Zollner (2014) claims that could also be a reflection of personal taste, since it reflects various studies of young men and women which greatly contrasted with the features of old age.

The artist also used the technique known as ‘chiaroscuro’ (which consists of controlling light and shadow as they reveal three-dimensional objects) increasing the contrast the closer a character is to the center of the scene.

Despite being unfinished it is a greatly innovative painting, not only for the incorporation of volumetric lights and darks, the geometry and the composition, but also as a composite whole for its groundbreaking use of complex actions and overlapping narratives, which was unseen for the time. Its greatest innovation is this new approach to a commonly depicted subject, not only differing from the traditional way of depicting the Adoration in Florence, but also changing the way painting was viewed, approached and understood. Scenes no longer had to be presented statically, but rather motion and time could be key determining factors of the aesthetics of the work.

Leonardo drew inspiration for the painting from two different Adoration panels. The starting point of the work is believed to have been Sandro Boticelli’s Adoration of the Maggi for Gaspare del Lama (c. 1472-1475), painted a few years before. From Boticelli’s work, Leonardo adopted the grouping of the figures in a semi-circular manner (arrangement in the foreground), the architecture on the left hand as ruins and the idea of looking up at the Star of Bethlehem. The second great influence is believed to have been the Adoration as depicted by Fra Angelico, for San Marco in Florence, from which Leonardo may have drawn up the monumentality of the scene, and the pompous importance of the event. This work, at the time, was considered to be the paradigm for Adoration scenes. Besides these direct influences, Leonardo was also greatly influenced by the artists of his time, especially Domenico Ghirlandaio, Filippino Lippi and Verrocchio with whom he studied with.

Adoration of the Maggi for Gaspare del Lama (c. 1472-1475), Sandro Boticelli

San Marco Altarpiece
(c. 1438-1440), Fra Angelico

The work is a good example of various subjects, techniques and approaches that would continue to define Leonardo’s oeuvre. The horsemen in battle, for example, is a subject that Leonardo would later take up in the work Battle of Anghiari.

‘The Battle of the Standard’ during the ‘Battle of Anghiari’ (After Leonardo da Vinci), Peter Paul Rubens, 1550-1603

This unfinished work greatly influenced the type of sketch study that would later characterize modern art. The idea of capturing movement and time, can be seen to have greatly influenced Cubism and Futurism; whereas the new approach to this common theme, can be seen to have connections with the works of Giotto, The Limbourg Brothers, Bosch, Sandro Botticelli, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and later to Charles-André van Loo.

Adoration of the Magi (1468-1560) by Workshop of Hieronymus Bosch

Adoration of the Magi (c. 1760) by Charles-André van Loo)

Adoration of the Magi (1303) by Giotto

Adoration of the Magi (1411-1416) by The Limbourg Brothers

Adoration of the Magi (1478-1482) by Sandro Botticelli

Adoration of the Magi (1488-1489) by Domenico Ghirlandaio

painting details

related videos

related works

Artist: Charles-André van Loo
Title: Adoration of the Magi
Date: c. 1760
Size: 129.5 x 105.4 cm
Medium: Oil on canvas
Location: Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles, USA

Artist: Sandro Botticelli
Title: Adoration of the Magi
Date: 1478-1482
Size: 68 x 102 cm
Medium: Oil and tempera on poplar wood
Location: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., USA

Artist: Giotto
Title: Adoration of the Magi
Date: 1303
Size: 200 x 185 cm
Medium: Fresco
Location: Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy

Artist: The Limbourg Brothers
Title: Adoration of the Magi (Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry)
Date: 1411-1416
Size: 29 x 21 cm
Medium: Tempera on vellum
Location: Condé Museum, Chantilly, France

Artist: Sandro Botticelli
Title: Adoration of the Magi
Date: c. 1476
Size: 111 x 134 cm
Medium: Tempera on wood
Location: Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy

Artist: Fra Angelico
Title: San Marco Altarpiece
Date: 1438-1443
Size: 220 x 227 cm
Medium: Tempera on wood
Location: Museum of San Marco, Florence, Italy

Artist: Workshop of Hieronymus Bosch
Title: Adoration of the Magi
Date: 1468-1560
Size: 71.1 x 56.5 cm
Medium: Oil, tempera and gold on wood
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA

Artist: Domenico Ghirlandaio
Title: Adoration of the Magi
Date: 1488-1489
Size: 285 x 240 cm
Medium: Oil and tempera on wood
Location: Ospedale degli Innocenti, Florence, Italy