Quentin Massys (also Matsys or Metsys) (Netherlandish, 1465/661530)
Oil on wood; 40 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. (102.9 x 80 cm)
John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1911 (11.143)
The emphatic claustrophobia and bold use of Italianate decorative motifs in this composition are characteristic of works produced by the first generation of Antwerp Mannerists, among whom Quentin Massys was one of the greatest practitioners. The scene is viewed up close, with half-length, gesticulating figures separated from the viewer by a fictive foreground ledge. The exotic neckpieces and clothing worn by the three Magi, and their vessels inlaid with precious stone and decorated with gold filigree are reminiscent of the finely wrought goldsmith work actually produced in Antwerp in the sixteenth century. Massys's interest in dramatic expression and gesture is apparent in the highly expressive face of the oldest king in the foreground and the violent gestures and expressions of the crowd in the background; they are effectively juxtaposed with the pale, beautiful and sweet countenances of the Virgin and Child. Active for most of his career in Antwerp, Massys was among the first Netherlandish painters to employ the extreme physiognomic types popularized by Leonardo da Vinci (made available to Northern artists through prints), thus reacting against the tradition of using uniform facial features. It was this interest in the psychology of physiognomy that made Massys such a gifted portraitist.