This small panel depicts the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus adored by the three wise men (magi in the Latin Vulgate) who, according to the Gospel of Matthew (2:1 – 12), came from the east, led by a star, in search of the newborn king of the Jews. The eldest magus kneels at the left and clasps the child’s hand. Another kneels at the right and presents a gold box, and the standing black magus takes hold of a gold cup handed him by a page. The representation of the magi as kings, denoted here by the crown of the standing magus, originated in art of the tenth century. At the far left and right stand Saint Joseph and another page.
The four indistinct red shapes in the sky along the top edge, painted in a wispy ductus similar to that of the clouds, are a peculiar iconographic feature. The one just above and to the left of the star of Bethlehem appears to represent a horned and bearded bovine animal, facing left, and thus could be the zodiacal sign of Capricorn (the Goat) associated with December and the Nativity, which would be appropriate to the subject of the painting. The crescent shape seeming to emit a flare above the right peak of the architectural ruin may represent some kind of celestial phenomenon, perhaps a comet. The two forms in the upper left and right, however, are too vague to decipher in any plausible way. Together, these celestial signs may allude to the historical understanding of the magi as Persian court astrologers.
Although the small size of the Museum’s Adoration of the Magi suggests that it could have been part of a larger ensemble of scenes from the life of Christ or the Virgin Mary, the absence of figural or ornamental decoration on the verso probably rules out considering it a fragment of a folding altarpiece wing. Instead the back is coated with a layer of dark paint, which leaves open the possibility that this was the central panel of a small portable triptych or one half of a diptych.
The history of this painting is known only back to 1965, when it was in the collection of Robert Lehman; at that time it was considered Westphalian and dated in the fifteenth century. Although the reason for that regional designation is not documented, it was based, perhaps, on perceived resemblances, which are ultimately unconvincing, to Westphalian works such as those of the Master of Iserlohn. The present composition relies in most of its parts on the central panel of Rogier van der Weyden’s Columba Altarpiece (Altarpiece of the Three Kings), named after its former location in the church of Sankt Columba, Cologne. The central position of the Virgin and Child, the pose and costume of Joseph, the two magi on the right, the page in white, the ruin, the position of the manger, the triangular stool supporting a gold vessel, and the central dip in the horizon are all based on the Columba Altarpiece. To this, the anonymous painter added elements from another major mid-fifteenth- Century retable in Cologne, Stefan Lochner’s Altarpiece of the Patron Saints of Cologne, originally located in the Ratskapelle, next to the town hall. Now in the Cologne Cathedral (Dom), it is commonly referred to as the Dombild. The most prominent borrowing from that work is the kneeling magus to the left of Mary, garbed in red. The anonymous painter of the Lehman picture transferred to that figure the sword and shoulder strap worn by the page at the right of Lochner’s composition. Rogier also used this sword motif from Lochner, hanging it instead from the belt of his standing magus, a figure generally based on Lochner’s page. In the underdrawing of the Lehman Adoration of the Magi, faint traces of a sword hung from the waist of the standing magus indicate that the anonymous artist originally considered Rogier’s formulation of the motif. Other elements of the Museum’s picture traceable to Lochner’s Dombild are the crown and upright pose of the Virgin, the fact that the two kneeling magi are bearded, and the sword held with its tip to the ground by the page at the right edge, which mirrors the sword at the left of Lochner’s painting. Other motifs in the painting indicate sources beyond Rogier’s Columba Altarpiece and Lochner’s Dombild. The position of the arms and upper body of the page at the right edge reflect the pose of Saint George in Jan van Eyck’s Virgin of Canon van der Paele, now in the Groeningemuseum, Bruges. The grate over the hole at the bottom left appears in more elaborate form in Rogier’s Middelburg Altarpiece in the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin. The ox and ass are arranged not as in the Columba Altarpiece but as in Dieric Bouts’s Nativity Altarpiece (The Pearl of Brabant) in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, with the ass in front, its head in profile. These additional reflections of Netherlandish models suggest that the artist responsible for the Metropolitan’s picture was in possession of a stock of drawn copies of various compositions and motifs from which he selected to create new combinations.
It has been suggested that the citations from two major altarpieces in Cologne link the Museum’s panel with that city, as does a stylistic affinity in general to painters active there after 1450, in particular to the Master of the Vision of Saint John, named after the Vision of Saint John the Evangelist now in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne. On close scrutiny, however, the comparison proves tenuous. The crisp forms of the Master of the Vision of Saint John have little in common with the relatively soft style of the Museum’s panel. In fact, a convincing stylistic connection to Cologne in general is lacking, and the similarities to the Columba Altarpiece and the Dombild need not be taken as indicative of an origin in Cologne, since many workshops in Germany and the Low Countries are known to have incorporated elements of both of these famous pictures into their repertoires. As the example of Hans Memling shows, the combination in a single picture of motifs from these two altarpieces need not have been limited to a painter residing in Cologne or even Germany. The modest quality of the Lehman Adoration of the Magi, which offers only vague criteria for comparison, makes the picture especially difficult to situate. Nevertheless, certain parallels with works in, and associated with, the so-called Medieval Housebook (private collection, formerly Collection of the Princes of Waldburg-Wolfegg) suggest a plausible origin in the Middle Rhine region. The Medieval Housebook is the name-giving work of the Master of the Housebook, also known as the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet, who according to scholarly consensus was only one of several (possibly as many as six) hands responsible for the manuscript’s illustrations executed roughly between 1470 and 1490. Of particular relevance to the Museum’s panel are the Housebook’s scenes from courtly life, ascribed to a Master of the Genre Scenes of the Housebook (Master of the Tournaments), in which the male figures tend to be of a slender and stilted type very similar to the standing magus and the page at the far right of the painting. The type derives from that used by the Master of the Housebook/Amsterdam Cabinet and appears, in more elegant form, in the three depictions of the planets (Mars, Sol, and Luna) by his hand in the Housebook and in his famed drypoint prints. Also, the costumes of the standing magus and the page at the right are of the type found in, and in the milieu of, the Housebook: shoes with exaggeratedly elongated pointed toes, tight hose, and a coat that ends in a short skirt with so-called organ-pipe pleats in the back. The page’s rounded hat with a narrow brim and feather recurs throughout the Housebook’s genre scenes and in some of the planet depictions. Furthermore, the underdrawing of the Museum’s panel finds certain analogues in works emanating from the artistic circle of the Housebook. The use of widely spaced parallel hatching (legs of the page at the right) alongside quick zigzag hatching (lower leg of Joseph, back of the kneeling magus on the right) can be found on two sheets attributed to the Master of the Genre Scenes of the Housebook: Three Men in Discussion and the double-sided Maximilian at the Peace Banquet in Bruges and Maximilian at the Peace Mass in Bruges, both in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.
While these comparisons of figure type, costume, and graphic style remain tentative, they do suggest an artist perhaps associated with the Master of the Genre Scenes of the Housebook and possibly familiar with the work of the Master of the Housebook. Furthermore, knowledge of the Housebook illustrations and its striking astrological depictions, possibly through a workshop association, could help to explain the apparent zodiacal and celestial phenomena painted in red in the sky of the Lehman picture. Although comparison is limited by the present work’s diminutive size, the paint handling and the fairly generic facial types have little in common with paintings attributed to the Master of the Housebook. With this in mind, a tentative Middle Rhenish attribution seems most appropriate, with a dating of about 1470 to 1490 in accord with the costume and figure types found among artists associated with the Medieval Housebook.
[2016; adapted from Waterman 2013]
Inscription: Inscribed in dark paint on the back of the uncradled panel: two lines of indecipherable script above the date 15.5, below which are a single indecipherable word and a flourish. Also on the back of the panel: 192-28, annotated in pencil, and a paper label annotated: C12247/R. Lehman