Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Adoration of the Magi

Workshop of Gerard David (Netherlandish, Oudewater ca. 1455–1523 Bruges)
ca. 1520
Oil on wood
Overall 27 3/4 x 28 7/8 in. (70.5 x 73.3 cm); painted surface 27 1/2 x 28 3/8 in. (69.2 x 72.1 cm)
Credit Line:
The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection, 1982
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 537
First established in Bruges, Gerard David also joined the painter’s guild in Antwerp in 1515, where his compositions and motifs soon began to circulate. This excellently preserved panel is strongly indebted to David’s work. The extravagantly dressed onlookers, however, are a pure invention of Antwerp art, as is the landscape view with travelers carrying goods for trade. Due to Antwerp’s status as the mercantile center for northern Europe, scenes of the Adoration of the Magi were particularly popular in the city. They served not only a devotional use, but could also be associated with the travel of foreign goods.
The Artist: For a biography of Gerard David, see “Gerard David (born about 1455, died 1523).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–.

The Painting: This beautifully composed Adoration of the Magi once was the centerpiece of a triptych flanked by a Night Nativity (at the left) and a Presentation in the Temple (at the right) that are currently in a European private collection (sold Christie’s, London, July 7, 2006, no. 122). The outside wings, when closed, showed the Annunciation (split from the interior wings, whereabouts unknown, see the reconstruction in Additional Images, fig. 1). Many of the elements of this triptych derive from works by Gerard David. The Adoration of the Magi is indebted to David’s painting of the same subject of around 1510–15 in the National Gallery, London (see Additional Images, fig. 2). It generally adopts the London painting’s composition in which the magi and their entourage, entering a palace in ruins from the right, present their gifts to the Christ Child, sitting in the Virgin’s lap at the far left in the foreground. Each painting presents a city and landscape view, featured like a separately framed vignette, at the center of the picture. In The Met's painting, however, this distant view takes on more prominence and divides the sensitively painted kneeling kings, Virgin and Child, and Joseph at the left, from the animated and more broadly painted group of dandies at the right, who follow the lavishly dressed and elegantly posed Moorish king. The Annunciation of the outside wings relates generally to David’s composition from the Cervara Altarpiece of 1506 (The Met, 50.145.9ab). The interior left wing Night Nativity is a version of a painting by David in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, but the Presentation in the Temple of the right wing is not a composition known in David’s extant works.

Attribution and Date: Although close to Gerard David in terms of composition and figure types, the majority of this painting was made by an artist—probably in David’s workshop—who could not match the refinement of his master’s handling and execution. Max J. Friedländer (1929) and Leo van Puyvelde (1962) attributed the work to the Master of Hoogstraeten, an Antwerp artist whose works include three other versions of The Met's picture (on the art market, P. de Boer, 1933, with shutters in Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; in the Mayer van den Bergh Museum, Antwerp; and in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Although the style and technique of The Met's painting are not close enough to the Master of Hoogstraeten to link it firmly to this master (see Mund et al. 2003), the features of the reconstructed triptych do relate to Antwerp painting of around 1520. The Adoration of the Magi was the single most popular theme produced for open-market sale in that city at the time. The expansive view into the distance, showing travelers transporting goods, was a common feature of Adoration scenes, as another Antwerp Master’s work at The Met shows (21.132.2). The popularity of such vignettes was related to the city’s predominance as the economic hub of Western Europe in the early sixteenth century, and the center of the import-export business. Thus the theme of travel, especially with luxury goods, was related to the very important excursion of the magi with special gifts to the Christ Child, conflating modern life with religious narrative. The subjects of the two interior wings, the Night Nativity and the Presentation in the Temple, are often found in Antwerp Mannerist triptychs. The Presentation in the Temple, not a featured subject in David’s oeuvre, was frequently connected with the Adoration of the Magi, especially in the oeuvre of the Master of 1518 and Pieter Coecke van Aelst, two of Antwerp’s most important painters.

A record in the Antwerp Archives, published by Rombouts and Van Lerius in 1961, states that in 1515 Gerard David, the famous painter long-established in Bruges, joined the Guild of Saint Luke in Antwerp as a Master (Philippe Rombouts and Théodore François Xavier Van Lerius, De Liggeren en andere historisch archieven der Antwerpse St.-Lucasgilde, vol. 1, Amsterdam, 1961 [reprint of 1864–76 edition], p. 83). Payments David continued to make on his house in Bruges in subsequent years imply that he did not move to Antwerp, and he did not take on any apprentices there, probably indicating that his workshop remained in Bruges. Most likely, David joined the Antwerp guild for commercial reasons, that is, in order to be able to sell paintings in what had become a more robust art market than Bruges at that time. This information is of particular interest in regard to The Met's Adoration of the Magi.

There are intriguing details of the facture of the Adoration that reveal that David may well have maintained quality control over such triptychs that issued from his Bruges workshop for sale in Antwerp. Examination with infrared reflectography revealed that the figures and the architectural elements were underdrawn in a liquid medium with loose, summary strokes, in a style different than that characteristic of Gerard David (see Additional Images, fig. 3). Here and there lines are broken with dashes, as if the artist was copying from a model. Although mostly painted by a workshop assistant, the Adoration shows that the treatment of the figures of the Virgin and Child and the two kneeling kings stand out from the rest for their far more refined handling and sensitive rendering, especially of the faces, as Micheline Comblen-Sonkes already noted (1983; unpublished opinion in departmental archives). The Virgin’s head is quite close stylistically and in terms of the paint handling to the head of the Virgin in David’s London Adoration of the Magi. The x-radiograph of the painting reveals significant differences in radio-opacity especially between the heads of the Virgin and eldest Magus, and the other figures (see Technical Notes and Additional Images, fig. 4). In addition, infrared reflectography shows that the features of the face of this Magus were significantly shifted in level and direction (see Additional Images, fig. 3). This, added to the greater radio-opacity evident in the x-radiograph of the heads of the Virgin and eldest Magus, and the more refined handling and execution of both, suggest that a second hand, namely Gerard David, repainted these heads. He probably also painted the Christ Child and the second kneeling Magus. Such interventions by the master, which were not uncommon, before the painting left the workshop, guaranteed a certain level of quality for which Gerard David was well known, and perhaps helped to insure sales on the thriving and competitive open market in Antwerp (Ainsworth 2017 [forthcoming]).

[Maryan W. Ainsworth 2016]
Support: The support is composed of two oak planks, with the grain oriented vertically. The join, located at the center of the panel, was originally held in place with three dowels; evident in the x-radiograph (see Additional Images, fig. 4). Dendrochronological analysis indicated an earliest possible creation date of 1496, with a more plausible date of 1510 upwards. The wood originated in the Baltic/Polish region (wood identification and dendrochronological analysis completed by Dr. Peter Klein, Universität Hamburg, 1997). The support has been planed to 1/4 inch (0.635 cm) and cradled.

Preparation: The panel was prepared with an off-white ground. Unpainted margins and a barbe along all edges indicate that the panel was in an engaged frame when the ground was applied and that the original dimensions are preserved.

Examination with infrared reflectography revealed that many of the figures and most of the architectural elements were underdrawn with a liquid medium (see Additional Images, fig. 3). The underdrawn lines are generally angular and cursory, restricted to the most important contours. In several instances the lines become dashed, for example, along Joseph’s jawline and around his proper right eye, around the proper right eye of the Virgin and both eyes of the eldest magus. These dashed lines suggest an artist copying from a model, rather than drawing an original composition directly onto the prepared panel. Dashed and dotted underdrawn lines are also evident in the background.

Comparison with the painted surface revealed many minor deviations from the underdrawing, including adjustments to contours and the repositioning of facial features. In the background several corrections were made to angles in the architecture and the central tree was painted more vertically than the swaying trunk depicted in the underdrawing.

Paint layers: There is a varying sophistication of handling throughout the composition. Some of the faces, most strikingly, the Virgin and the two kneeling magi, were more sensitively rendered than others. The distribution of light in these faces is more subtle and the features more finely described. A slightly different painting approach is exemplified in the eyes. The eyes of the courtier at far right and the black magus depend on contour lines that delineate the iris and the upper and lower lids, with a final—and occasionally inaccurate—touch of cool white to suggest the white of the eye (see Additional Images, figs. 5, 6). By contrast, the eyes of the eldest magus are less reliant on contour lines to create form; the whites of the eyes were modeled first, followed by a dab of green for the irises and then, while the paint was still wet, a single stroke of dark brown for the pupil and a touch of white for a highlight. Joseph’s eyes appear to have been painted following a similar method but some minor losses complicate this comparison (see Additional Images, figs. 7, 8). These differences in handling are subtle, but, when considered alongside other technical evidence, suggest the involvement of more than one hand.

The head of the eldest magus and of the Virgin have a greater radio-opacity in the x-radiograph than the other heads (see Additional Images, fig. 4). The head of the eldest magus appears as a nearly flat white oval in the x-radiograph: it is difficult to make out any of his facial features. This appearance could be due to a complete repainting of this head. On the other hand, the build-up of lead white in the Virgin’s head, as revealed in the x-radiograph is similar to that of the other figures and consistent with early Netherlandish painting practice, but it is simply more radio-opaque. The different appearance of the Virgin’s head in the x-radiograph may indicate that it was simply re-worked, resulting in the greater radio-opacity in the x-radiograph and the relatively thicker application of paint observed on the surface, rather than entirely painted out.

Several changes, evident in infrared reflectography, also point to multiple hands at work. The eldest magus’s proper left eye was initially painted at a higher position, giving a steeper angle to the line of the eyes. Interestingly, the initial eye was painted slightly differently: the iris was outlined, like the eyes of the figures at right and unlike the final painted version. His mouth was also underdrawn at a steeper angle and altered in the painting. This evidence of significant changes to his facial features, together with the appearance of the magus’s head in the x-radiograph, further suggest that this head was entirely repainted and possibly by a different hand. Infrared examination also revealed that Joseph’s proper right eye was originally painted higher, which would have given the angle of his eyes a steeper tilt downward as well. Finally, the Child’s head was enlarged slightly and painted out to the right, over the red of Joseph’s robe.

In general the painting is in very good condition, with only a few areas of loss. Losses are mostly associated with the join, as well as a few damages in the black magus’s green mantle. In addition the red robe of the courtier to the left of the black magus is slightly abraded. On the whole, the pigments making up the jewel-toned palette remain very vibrant: the red lakes are hardly faded and in the greens there is only a minor amount of discoloration, as is characteristic of copper-containing paint. There is some discoloration in the blue of the Virgin’s robe.

The haloes of the Virgin and Child were originally executed using what appears to be shell gold, but it is quite damaged and has been heavily overpainted with a pale orange paint.

[Sophie Scully 2016]

Infrared reflectography completed with a Merlin Indigo InGaAs near infrared camera with a StingRay macro lens customized for the wavelengths covered by the camera, 0.9 to 1.7 microns.
John Rushout, 2nd Lord Northwick, Thirlestane House, Cheltenham (by 1854–59; his estate sale, Phillips, Thirlestane House, July 27, 1859, no. 172, as by Van Eyck, for £519.15.0 to Brett); John Watkins Brett, London (1859–d. 1863; his estate sale, Christie's, London, April 9, 1864, no. 858, as by J. Hemmelinck [Memling]); George Rushout Bowles, 3rd Lord Northwick, Northwick Park, Gloucestershire (until d. 1887); his widow, Elizabeth Augusta Bowles, Lady Northwick, Northwick Park (1887–d. 1912); her grandson, Captain Edward George Spencer-Churchill, Northwick Park (1912–d. 1964; his estate sale, Christie's, London, May 28, 1965, no. 41, as by Gerard David, for £27,300); [Julius Weitzner, New York, 1965]; Mr. and Mrs. Jack Linsky, New York (1965–his d. 1980); The Jack and Belle Linsky Foundation, New York (1980–82)
London. Burlington Fine Arts Club. "Winter Exhibition," 1936–37, no. 14 (as by Gerard David, lent by Capt. E. G. Spencer Churchill).

London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Flemish Art 1300–1700," December 5, 1953–March 6, 1954, no. 39 (as by Gerard David, lent by Captain E. G. Churchill).

Bruges. Musée Communal Groeninge. "L'Art flamand dans les collections britanniques et la Galerie Nationale de Victoria," August–September 1956, no. 26 (as by Gerard David, lent by Captain E. G. Spencer Churchill).

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art," September 22, 1998–February 21, 1999, no. 84.

[Gustav Friedrich] Waagen. Treasures of Art in Great Britain. London, 1854, vol. 3, p. 206.

J. A. Crowe and G. B. Cavalcaselle. The Early Flemish Painters. 2nd ed. London, 1872, p. 298.

A Catalogue of the Pictures, Works of Art, &c. at Northwick Park. repr., with additions [1st ed., 1864]. [London], 1908, p. 28.

Arundel Club. Publications 10 (1913), no. 9, ill., as by Gerard David.

Tancred Borenius. Catalogue of the Collection of Pictures at Northwick Park. London, 1921, p. 58, no. 121.

Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 7, Quentin Massys. Berlin, 1929, p. 134, no. 111.

Ellis K. Waterhouse. "The Winter Exhibition at the Burlington Fine Arts Club." Burlington Magazine 70 (1937), p. 45.

F. Grossmann. "Flemish Paintings at Bruges." Burlington Magazine 99 (January 1957), p. 4.

Leo van Puyvelde. La peinture flamand au siècle de Bosch et Breughel. Paris, 1962, p. 365.

Patrick Lindsay in Great Private Collections. Ed. Douglas Cooper. New York, 1963, p. 43, ill.

Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 7, Quentin Massys. New York, 1971, p. 73, no. 111, pl. 86.

Guy C. Bauman in The Jack and Belle Linsky Collection in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1984, pp. 54–57, no. 17, ill. (color), catalogues it as "Attributed to Gerard David," but observes that "the depth of space here, and the style of architecture, which reveals an advanced awareness of recent architectural developments in Italy, surpass anything in David's oeuvre and argue for as late a date as possible"; suggests that it is based on a lost composition by Gerard David, perhaps a free copy after Hugo.

Guy Bauman in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Notable Acquisitions, 1983–1984. New York, 1984, pp. 50–51, ill. (color).

Hans J. van Miegroet. Gerard David. Antwerp, 1989, p. 312, no. 51, ill., as probably by a follower of David, perhaps an Antwerp master.

Introduction by Walter A. Liedtke in Flemish Paintings in America: A Survey of Early Netherlandish and Flemish Paintings in the Public Collections of North America. Antwerp, 1992, p. 328, no. 184, ill.

Cécile Scailliérez. "Entre enluminure et peinture: À propos d'un 'Paysage avec Saint Jérôme Pénitent' de l'École Ganto-Brugeoise récemment acquis par le Louvre." Revue des musées de France: Revue du Louvre no. 2 (1992), p. 22.

Maryan W. Ainsworth. "A Meeting of Sacred and Secular Worlds." From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Ed. Maryan W. Ainsworth and Keith Christiansen. Exh. cat., The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1998, pp. 314–317, no. 84, ill. (color, overall and detail), ascribes it to the workshop of David, about 1520, noting that it ultimately derives from Hugo's Monteforte Altarpiece (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) but is loosely associated with David's Adoration in the National Gallery, London; credits De Vos with the discovery, in a private collection, of the wings for our panel.

Maryan W. Ainsworth. Gerard David: Purity of Vision in an Age of Transition. New York, 1998, p. 203 n. 50.

Maryan W. Ainsworth. "Was Simon Bening a Panel Painter?" Corpus of Illuminated Manuscripts 11–12 (2002), p. 11.

Hélène Mund et al. The Mayer van den Bergh Museum, Antwerp. Brussels, 2003, pp. 100, 117–20, 301, ill., compare it with an Adoration of the Magi in the Mayer van den Bergh Museum attributed to the Master of Hoogstraten.

Maryan W. Ainsworth. "Gerard David in Antwerp." Imagery and Ingenuity in Early Modern Europe: Essays in Honor of Jeffrey Chipps Smith. Ed. Catharine Ingersoll, Alisa M. Carlson, and Jessica Weiss. Turnhout, Belgium, 2017 [forthcoming].

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