Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Adoration of the Magi

Quentin Metsys (Netherlandish, Leuven 1466–1530 Kiel)
Oil on wood
40 1/2 x 31 1/2 in. (102.9 x 80 cm)
Credit Line:
John Stewart Kennedy Fund, 1911
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 639
This intentionally claustrophobic composition is characteristic of the Antwerp Mannerist style of the first half of the sixteenth century. 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 for the opulent taste of the cosmopolitan community in Antwerp—abounds. The caricature-like features of the Magi and their retinue reveal the artist’s interest in the extreme physiognomic types popularized by Leonardo da Vinci and made available through prints. It was this interest in the psychology of physiognomy that made Metsys such a gifted portraitist.
Quentin Massys was a leading proponent of the Antwerp Mannerist style of the first half of the sixteenth century. This Adoration scene was painted in 1526, toward the end of Massys’s career, as is indicated by the number "26" on the decorated pilaster between the Virgin and Magi. The riches displayed in the Magi’s clothing and gifts directly relate to the wealthy community in contemporary Antwerp, which at the turn of the sixteenth century was a prominent trade center (Sintobin 1998). Massys’s observation of the foreign residents of his city may have contributed to his representation of the African king. The theme of the Adoration of the Magi was especially popular with Antwerp Mannerists, as it allowed for the depiction of ornamental costume and exotic elements within a theatrical space. An elaborate setting, in which decorative motifs are combined with architectural decay, is also characteristic.

Massys is known to have combined Flemish tradition with Italian Renaissance features. The physiognomies of the figures in the crowd show the influence of the grotesque faces in paintings by Hieronymus Bosch. The head of the oldest king is based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Head of an Old Man, and the faces of some of the followers are reminiscent of his Physiognomics (both in the Royal Library, Windsor).

Inscription: Dated (on pilaster): [15]26.
[Martin Colnaghi, London; sold to Hughes]; Hugh Robert Hughes, Kinmel, Abergele, North Wales (by 1882–at least 1900); Rodolphe Kann, Paris (until d. 1905; his estate, 1905–7; cat., 1907, vol. 2, no. 103; sold to Duveen); [Duveen, London, from 1907–at least 1908]; [Dowdeswell and Dowdeswell, London, until 1911; sold to MMA]
London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," January–March 1882, no. 193 (lent by H. R. Hughes).

London. New Gallery. "Exhibition of Pictures by Masters of the Flemish and British Schools," 1899–1900, no. 96 (lent by H. R. Hughes).

London. Royal Academy of Arts. "Winter Exhibition," 1908, no. 25 (lent by Duveen Brothers).

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. 99.

[Max J.] Friedländer. "Die Leihausstellung der New Gallery in London, Januar–März 1900.—Hauptsächlich niederländische Gemälde des XV. und XVI. Jahrhunderts." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 23 (1900), p. 25, accepts the attribution to Massys and dates it probably not long before 1510.

Walter Cohen. Studien zu Quinten Metsys: Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der Malerei in den Niederlanden. Bonn, 1904, pp. 73, 88, surmises that it served as a model for an "Adoration of the Magi" in Antwerp (Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten), which he ascribes to Massys [the picture is presently ascribed to C. van Cleve].

Jean de Bosschère. Quinten Metsys. Brussels, 1907, pp. 39–40, 133, ill. opp. p. 26.

Marcel Nicolle. "La Collection Rodolphe Kann." Revue de l'art ancien et moderne 23 (January–June 1908), p. 193.

Harald Brising. Quentin Matsys und der Ursprung Italianismus in der Kunst der Niederlande. Leipzig, 1908, p. 52, no. 68, lists it among copies and school works of Massys.

[Hippolyte] Fierens-Gevaert. La peinture en Belgique: Les primitifs flamands. Vol. 3, Débuts du XVIe siècle: Fin de l'idéal gothique. Brussels, 1910, p. 196, dates it about 1510.

B. B[urroughs]. "The Adoration of the Kings by Quentin Metsys." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 6 (December 1911), pp. 228, ill. on cover, suggests that the number 26 which occurs in a cartouche in the decoration of the pilaster may refer to 1526 and be the date of the painting.

Gustav Glück. "Ein Studienkopf von Quinten Metsys." Die Graphischen Künste 34 (1911) [reprinted in "Aus drei Jahrhunderten Europäischer Malerei," Vienna, 1933, pp. 76, 78].

Wilhelm R. Valentiner. The Art of the Low Countries. English ed. Garden City, N.Y., 1914, p. 91.

Martin Conway. The Van Eycks and Their Followers. London, 1921, p. 319, calls it a late work.

Friedrich Winkler. Die altniederländische Malerei: Die Malerei in Belgien und Holland von 1400–1600. Berlin, 1924, p. 203.

Willy Burger. Die Malerei in den Niederlanden 1400–1550. Munich, 1925, p. 91, pl. 152.

Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 7, Quentin Massys. Berlin, 1929, pp. 40, 50, 60, 115, no. 8, pl. 14, dates it 1526.

Ludwig Baldass. "Gotik und Renaissance im Werke des Quinten Metsys." Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien, n.s., 7 (1933), pp. 139, 148, 166, fig. 119 (detail), questions its authenticity, finding the detailed ornament of the costume unlike other works by Massys; considers it a copy after a last compostion by the artist; doubts that the inscription 26 refers to the date of execution in 1526 .

E. P. Richardson. "Quentin Massys." Art Quarterly 4 (1941), p. 172, fig. 10, regards its superb quality as the mark of a great master, not workshop, closely related to Massys's "Virgin and Child" in the Detriot Museum of Art.

K. G. Boon in "Bouts–David–Geertgen tot St Jans–Moro–Breugel." Palet-Serie: Een reeks monografieën over hollandse en vlaamse schilders. Amsterdam, [1942], pp. 45, 47, ill., accepts 1526 date; discounts Italian sources suggesting instead the inspiration of Flemish prints after Italian models.

E. P. Richardson. Letter to Margaretta Salinger. April 7, 1943, finds it advanced in technique for the 1520's.

W. Vanbeselaere. Peter Bruegel en het Nederlandsche Manierisme. Tielt, Belgium, 1944, p. 65, fig. 34.

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 108–10, ill., note that "although 1526 probably should be accepted as its date, our picture is to be regarded as a work in which Massys harked back to his earlier style".

Ernest Lotthé. La pensée chrétienne dans la peinture flamande et hollandaise. Lille, 1947, vol. 1, pp. 84–85, pl. 48; vol. 2, p. 325, n. 134.

Luís Reis-Santos. Le Portrait de Saint Bernadin de Sienne par Quentin Metsys. Lisbon, 1949, pp. 21–22, 26 n. 16, suggests that Massys began this painting before 1520, which would explain the oval face of the virgin, and completed it in 1526, a date that would be consistent with the prevalence of Renaissance ornament in the architecture and costumes.

Leo van Puyvelde. La peinture flamande au siècle des van Eyck. Paris, 1953, pp. 320–21.

Luigi Mallé. "Quinten Metsys." Commentari 6, no. 2 (April–June 1955), pp. 104–5.

Erik Larsen. Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York. Utrecht, 1960, pp. 85, 127–28, fig. 28.

Karl Arndt. "Gerard Davids 'Anbetung der Könige' nach Hugo van der Goes." Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, 3rd ser., 12 (1961), p. 174 n. 81.

Charles D. Cuttler. Northern Painting from Pucelle to Bruegel. New York, 1968, p. 423.

Leo van Puyvelde. La peinture flamande des van Eyck à Metsys. Brussels, 1968, p. 231, accepts 1526 date.

B. Völker. Die Entwicklung des erzählenden Halbfigurenbildes in der niederländischen Malerei des 15 und 16 Jahrhunderts. PhD diss.Göttingen, 1968, pp. 102–3, 113–14, relates the faces of the Magi and their retinue to the Leonardesque types in the Antwerp Lamentation Altarpiece (St. John Altarpiece) of 1508–11; assigns it to the same period, before about 1510.

Gert von der Osten and Horst Vey. Painting and Sculpture in Germany and the Netherlands 1500 to 1600. Baltimore, 1969, p. 149, mention this picture as characteristic of his late mannerist development.

Elie Konigson. La Representation d'un mystère de la Passion à Valenciennes en 1547. Paris, 1969, pl. 3.

Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 7, Quentin Massys. New York, 1971, pp. 35, 65, 81, no. 48, suppl. no. 169, pl. 49.

Leon Voet. Antwerp, the Golden Age: The Rise and Glory of the Metropolis in the Sixteenth Century. Antwerp, 1973, pp. 18–21, ill. (color, overall and detail).

A. de Bosque. Quentin Metsys. Brussels, 1975, pp. 220, 225–26, 366, fig. 278, accepts the date 1526, noting that although the Christ child is archaic, the decorative architecture would have been unknown to Massys before 1520.

Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, pp. 205, 212, fig. 382 (color).

Larry Silver. The Paintings of Quinten Massys with Catalogue Raisonné. Montclair, N.J., 1984, pp. 28 n. 55, pp. 47, 82, 91–92, 95, 121, 127, 180, 184, 191, 217, 221–23, 225–30, 239–40 n. 40, pl. 79, accepts 1526 date and discusses the picture in depth; notes that the compostition derives from Hugo van der Goes's Monforte altarpiece [now in Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin–Dahlem].

Introduction by James Snyder in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Renaissance in the North. New York, 1987, pp. 13, 64–65, ill. (color).

Robert A. Koch, Selected by Guy C. Bauman, and Walter A. Liedtke, 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. 104–5, no. 28, ill. (color), notes that the delicately ornamented marble plaques may have been inspired by the etchings of Daniel Hopfer, a comtemporary of Massys in Augsburg.

Paul Philippot. La peinture dans les anciens pays-bas, XVe–XVIe siècles. Paris, 1994, p. 122, ill.

Emmanuelle Revel. Le Prêteur et sa femme de Quentin Metsys. Paris, 1995, pp. 74–75, ill.

Véronique Sintobin in 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. 37, 58, 66, 74, 258, 318, 321, 332, 368–70, no. 99, ill. in color (overall and detail), as perhaps inspired by contemporary theatrical practice.

Carmen García-Frías Checa in Patinir: Essays and Critical Catalogue. Ed. Alejandro Vergara. Exh. cat., Museo Nacional del Prado. Madrid, 2007, p. 276.

Larry Silver. Pieter Bruegel. New York, 2011, p. 244, colorpl. 205.

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