This composition, in which half-length figures of the three magi are viewed behind a fictive arcade, offering their gifts to the Christ Child—an event celebrated in the Church as the Feast of Epiphany (January 6)—conforms to the rising popularity in the Netherlands for close-up devotional paintings that put the viewer in a direct relationship with the event depicted. On the ledge separating the viewer from the sacred figures is placed a receptacle with gold coins—the gift of the oldest king (or magus).
The individual figures in the composition seem to reflect Hugo van der Goes’s altarpiece of the same subject, otherwise known as the Monforte Altarpiece (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin), which was painted around 1470. Among the similarities are the grouping of the Virgin and Child and eldest king, with the king shown in strict profile and with a similar vessel filled with gold coins; the oddly slipping hat of the middle-aged king; and the imperial globe offered by the young black king. Whether the master of the MMA picture freely adapted these features from Hugo’s Monforte Altarpiece or, as Friedländer (1926) and Winkler (1964) believed, took them over from a version of the composition by Hugo van der Goes himself, cannot be said with certainly, especially since Hugo is known to have introduced similar, close-up compositions, in particular for scenes from the passion.
However, this composition, which does not imitate Hugo’s convincing psychological interaction between the figures, is unlikely to have been based directly on a lost version by the Ghent master (see Arndt 1961). Rather, the artist likely drew on isolated figure patterns derived from Hugo’s paintings and reassembled for a new version of the Adoration of the Magi, as was common practice especially in Antwerp workshops at the time. For example, the distinctive motif of the Virgin and Child, who rather warily regards the old king, is known from paintings in the circle of the Antwerp-based Master of Frankfurt as an isolated motif in different iconographical contexts (see Winkler 1964), as well as from his larger altarpieces, such as the Altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi (Antwerp, Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten). Stephen Goddard (1983) identified the Master of Frankfurt with Hendrik van Wueluwe, who was a member of the Antwerp St. Luke’s guild from 1483 and died in 1533. He noted particularly the importance of Hugo van der Goes for the Master of Frankfurt, whose works show familiarity with the Monforte Altarpiece. Goddard attempted to define several artistic individuals within the rather incoherent group of works associated with the Frankfurt Master, among them the Watervliet Master, named after the Deposition triptych in the Church of the Assumption of Our Lady in Watervliet in Northern Flanders. He attributed the Metropolitan painting to this master, a hypothesis that needs further study through the technical examination of the Frankfurt Master group.
The survival of another nearly identical version of the MMA painting (Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen) testifies to the popularity of this particular close-up version of the Adoration of the Magi for open market sale. That these were likely painted in the same Antwerp workshop sometime in the last two decades of the fifteenth century (according to Ringmom, ca. 1480; see Ringbom 1984) is supported by the dendrochronological analysis of the Metropolitan Museum painting (Klein 2014).
[Christine Seidel 2013; updated by Maryan W. Ainsworth 2014]
F[ritz von]. Harck. "Berichte und Mittheilungen aus Sammlungen und Museen, über staatliche Kunstpflege und Restaurationen, neue Funde: Aus amerikanischen Galerien." Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft 11 (1888), p. 74, as by Gerard van der Meire.
Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 4, Hugo van der Goes. Berlin, 1926, pp. 63, 65–66, 130, no. 22a, pl. 33, ascribes this picture, along with a replica of equal merit in the Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen, to a follower of Hugo, perhaps the so-called Master of Frankfurt; suggests the type goes back to a lost original by Hugo; comments on the representation which borders on the grotesque and the somewhat peasant-like vigor of the figures; places the composition latest in the sequence of Hugo's Adoration pictures, which, he notes, display a tendency over time to bring the Kings and Joseph closer to the Child at the center.
Karl Oettinger. "Das Rätsel der Kunst des Hugo van der Goes." Jahrbuch der kunsthistorischen Sammlungen in Wien, n.s., 12 (1938), p. 60 n. 13, cites it with works in the style of Hugo which utilize specific motifs from his works; notes that only the figure of the kneeling king is borrowed from the Master.
W. R. Valentiner. "Jan de Vos, The Master of Frankfort." Art Quarterly 8 (Summer 1945), p. 212, suggests that it is a copy after Hugo van der Goes by the Master of Frankfort, whom he identifies with Jan de Vos, a "painter who came probably from Ghent, but spent much of his later life on the Lower Rhine, that is in Cologne".
Harry B. Wehle. "Seventy-Five Years Ago." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 4 (April 1946), pp. 201–2, calls it a copy after a lost picture by Hugo; notes, however, that it can no longer be attributed to Gerard van der Meire as he cannot be connected with any known works.
Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 60–61, ill., as a very close late fifteenth-century copy after a lost prototype by Hugo.
Royal Museum of Fine Arts: Catalogue of Old Foreign Paintings. Copenhagen, 1951, p. 377.
Erik Larsen. Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York. Utrecht, 1960, p. 68, calls it a mannerist copy of a lost composition by Hugo or at least from the School of Ghent; dates it to the first quarter of the 16th century.
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, attributes it to an early 16th–century copyist, noting that such exotic elements as the neck and ear jewellery recall works made in Antwerp at that time, including Quentin Massys's Adoration of the Magi in the MMA [11.143]; observes that the Moorish king differs from Hugo's type for this figure; rejects the idea of a lost half–length prototype by Hugo as our painting has many features in common with his Monforte Altarpiece—the head and hands of the king in the foreground, the vessel on the parapet, the right hand of the Moorish king, as well as the Christ Child, the Virgin and Joseph—and Hugo never repeated himself in this manner; sees the disparity between the dull arrangement of our composition and the rhythmic freedom of the Monforte Altarpiece as further evidence against a Hugo prototype; notes that the Madonna and Child type in our painting can be seen in surviving works in different thematic contexts and suggests that it alone is based on a lost painting by Hugo.
Georges Marlier. "Le Maître de la Légende de sainte Ursule." Jaarboek / Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten (1964), p. 27.
Friedrich Winkler. Das Werk des Hugo van der Goes. Berlin, 1964, pp. 114–19, 208, 311, ill., concludes from the quality of the replicas, partial copies and free adaptations of this composition that a now lost prototype with half-length figures behind a parapet was invented by Hugo, not by a pupil or a follower; dates the model early in Hugo's career, before the Monforte Altarpiece; postulates the existance of a second version of the half-length Adoration, also known only through copies, in which the figures move more freely in space and the composition has been simplified; suggests this second composition was produced later in Hugo's career.
Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 4, Hugo van der Goes. New York, 1969, pp. 38–39, 72, no. 22a, pl. 36.
Charles Sterling. Letter. February 20, 1971, considers it a copy after or imitation of Hugo van der Goes, about 1500.
Stephen H. Goddard. "The Master of Frankfurt and his Shop." PhD diss., University of Iowa, 1983, pp. 145–47, 404–5, no. 94, attributes it to the "Master of the Watervliet Triptych," an associate of the workshop of the Master of Frankfurt but strongly influenced by post-Rogerian tendencies; calls the version in Copenhagen a production from the shop of the Master of Frankfurt and dates both works about 1510.
Sixten Ringbom. Icon to Narrative: The Rise of the Dramatic Close-up in Fifteenth-century Devotional Painting. rev. ed. Doornspijk, The Netherlands, 1984, pp. 90–91, 101–4, 167, 200, fig. 55 [first published in Acta Academiae Aboensis, ser. A, Humaniora, 1965, vol. 31, no. 2, same page nos.], calls it it very likely a workshop production after a lost composition by Hugo and dates it and the Copenhagen replica about 1480; sees the composition as evidence of the development of half-length religious narratives from the icon tradition and considers it a condensed version of the Monforte Altarpiece, perhaps distilled from a pattern book page which focused on the hands and heads of the figures; discusses our picture in relation to an Adoration by Mantegna [now Getty Museum, Los Angeles] assuming that the influence, if any, would have gone from North to South.
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. 20.
Jochen Sander. Hugo van der Goes: Stilentwicklung und Chronologie. Mainz, 1992, p. 255 nn. 57–58, fig. 102, attributes it to a follower who modified an important composition of Van der Goes [the Monforte Altarpiece]; observes copy-like weaknesses in the awkward way the Virgin holds the child and in the use of an enormously wide and high parapet.
Christa Grössinger. North-European Panel Paintings: A Catalogue of Netherlandish & German Paintings Before 1600 in English Churches & Colleges. London, 1992, pp. 42–44, discusses a third replica in the church of St. Margaret of Antioch, Abbotsley, Huntingdon, that is very close to the MMA and Copenhagen examples.
Catherine Reynolds in The Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 12, New York, 1996, p. 850, as the reworking of a larger composition.
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. 370, 404, ill. pp. 368 and 404.
Elisabeth Dhanens. Hugo van der Goes. Antwerp, 1998, pp. 217–19, ill. (color), notes that this composition can be recognized in a number of works, including the diptych by the Khanenko Master [see Ref. Friedländer 1969, no. 43] and in manuscript illuminations of the Ghent–Bruges School from about 1500; relates oriental features in our painting, such as the peculiar beard of the king standing in the center and the earing of the black king, to observations made by a Ghent chronicler of visits by oriental dignitaries in the second half of the 15th century.
Maryan W. Ainsworth. Memorandum to Torie Reed. May 25, 1999, suggests that the faces carved into the capital bases in our painting are meant as a representation of the mythical wild man with probable reference to original sin, to be redeemed by true faith in Jesus.
Cyriel Stroo et al. The Flemish Primitives II: Catalogue of Early Netherlandish Painting in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium. Vol. 2, The Dirk Bouts, Petrus Christus, Hans Memling and Hugo van der Goes Groups. Brussels, 1999, p. 225.
Katharine Baetjer. "Buying Pictures for New York: The Founding Purchase of 1871." Metropolitan Museum Journal 39 (2004), pp. 180, 198, appendix 1A no. 1, ill. p. 198, fig. 36.
Susan Urbach. Early Netherlandish Paintings. London, 2015, vol. 2, pp. 66, 73 n. 12, under no. 32.