Based on the Gospel of Saint Matthew 2:1–22, this Adoration of the Magi takes place on a grand porch, where the three magi have arrived to worship the Christ Child. In the background right and left are a stable with the ox and the ass, and Joseph’s carpentry shop, where pieces of wood and various tools are strewn on the floor. A servant, the three kings, and the Holy Family are aligned in two parallel, diagonal tracks across the expanse of the room. Dressed in a regal blue gown and voluminous white mantle, the Virgin sits on a red-covered bed. She tenderly holds her child with her right hand and appears to press him forward with her left hand, presenting Christ to the oldest king, who kneels in adoration, offering his gift. Two other kings, one middle-aged and the other youthful, patiently wait to approach the Christ Child. Playing a subsidiary role, Christ’s earthly father, Joseph, gestures with his left hand as if both to welcome the visitors and to present the Virgin and Child to them. With his hat in his right hand, and his forward-leaning pose, Joseph appears to have just arrived on the scene. The retinue of the kings, accompanied by a greyhound wearing a decorative gold collar, crowd in at the left, eagerly observing the event.
This portrayal is augmented by details, naturally placed as if part of the daily life of the Holy Family but intended to convey deeper religious meaning. It is replete with visual references to Christ’s Incarnation and eventual sacrifice and death on the cross for the redemption of humankind. Prominent in both its placement and red color, the thalamus virginis
, or nuptial bed of Mary as the Bride of Christ, signals a theological concept that is found in various exegetical texts and in the writings of the Latin Fathers and theologians. It underscores Christ’s Incarnation and his union with God the Father through his virgin mother, thereby marrying his divine nature with his human nature. On the bedside table is a candleholder and snuffed out candle, perhaps alluding to the greater “light” present with the Christ Child. Casually placed on the three-legged table in the foreground is the milk-soup meal for the Christ Child; it nourishes him just as he, in turn, will spiritually nourish the faithful. Also here are a knife near two small loaves of bread, and a glass for wine. The bread and the wine are Eucharistic symbols, recalling the last meal Christ shared with his disciples before his crucifixion, and the commemoration of that event by the faithful when celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion. With a subservient attitude, an advancing Black attendant presents a gold vessel to the Black king, who, in turn, will offer it to the Child. It is decorated on the tip of its lid with a pelican pricking its breast to feed its young, a symbol of Christ’s self-sacrifice for humankind. Instead of another golden vessel, the middle-aged king’s gift is quite unusual for an Adoration of the Magi. It is a crystal orb, symbolic of the world, and reminiscent of the attribute Christ holds as Salvator Mundi (Savior of the World). Recalling other events of the Passion of Christ is the column base at the lower left that recalls the column to which Christ was tied and thrashed before his crucifixion. The emphasis here on Christ’s Incarnation and sacrifice for the salvation of humankind suggests the likely function of this painting as an altarpiece or antependium. The fact that the scene is viewed from above supports the latter notion, as the painting would then be properly coordinated with the standing position of a priest celebrating Holy Communion before it.Attribution and Date:
This painting is most often attributed to Justus van Ghent (also called Joos van Wassenhove), with Paul Eeckhout expressing a rare dissenting voice, favoring instead Hugo van der Goes (Eeckhout 1994, pp. 422–23). Scholars have associated the Adoration of the Magi in date with the Crucifixion Triptych
usually dated about 1465 (Saint Bavo’s Cathedral, Ghent; see fig. 1 above), which Justus van Ghent presumably painted before his trip to Italy, where a “Giusto da Guanto”—thought to be Joos van Wassenhove—is documented in 1473–74 working on the Communion of the Apostles
for the Confraternity of Corpus Domini in Urbino (now in the Galleria Nazionale in Urbino). It has been supposed that the Adoration of the Magi
was painted slightly after 1465 (Sprinson de Jésus 1998, pp. 105–6). Otto Pächt (1927–29, p. 49), on the other hand, and without providing further justification, was firmly convinced that it was painted in Italy after the Communion of the Apostles
, thus after about 1474.
Despite the fact that the Crucifixion Triptych
is in oil on wood and this Adoration
is a tüchlein (distemper on canvas), there are stylistic and technical similarities that indicate a possible workshop connection (see Technical Notes). Overall elements of the composition relate to each other, especially the prominent use of directional diagonal axes along which the figures are arranged in order to suggest recession into space. The way the bystanders at the left in the triptych centerpiece and in the Adoration
crowd in together is comparable; many partial heads are identified by variously shaped hats and punctuated by the color red (compare figs. 2, 3). Also equivalent are the variety of facial types represented and their consistent and convincing preoccupation with the theme at hand. Certain types, such as the man in each in the foreground in the red hat with beard (compare figs. 4, 5) are analogous. A distinctive characterization of the wizened old man, with animated hand gestures, and with sharply articulated features and long, often unruly, beard enlivens the biblical episodes of each painting (compare figs. 6–9). Furthermore, there is the tall, thin, and elegant young Black man who is featured as one of the magi in the Adoration
and introduced as an exoticized type in the Crucifixion Triptych (compare figs. 10, 11).New Sources for the Adoration of the Magi and its Innovative Presentation:
Several details of the Adoration of the Magi
not previously discussed help to clarify the questions of its date and where it was painted. However, to recognize the revolutionary nature of the composition for an early Netherlandish painting, it is helpful to identify the formative influences on Justus’s work. These influences derive from the style of Dieric Bouts, as is also the case with the Crucifixion Triptych
. Jacqueline Folie (1960, pp. 113–16) noted that the Virgin and Child are seated on a red-covered bed as they are in the Bouts Pearl of Brabant
(Bayerische Staatgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Munich), and as the Virgin is in Bouts’s Virgin in the Annunciation
(J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles). In fact, if one reverses the Pearl of Brabant
(fig. 12), there are indeed compositional similarities between this painting and The Met’s Adoration of the Magi
. The biblical episode plays out across a broad, slightly tilted-up plane, punctuated by vertical supporting posts of the architecture, where the main protagonists are aligned across it. The Black king in each composition is the outlier, placed to the left of center. He is associated as much with the accompanying retinue as with the other two kings. The three-legged table is a familiar prop in both paintings, and the interior stable of the dilapidated architecture, likewise, is relegated to an upper corner where the ox and the ass roam freely. Looking closer at the type of the Virgin, it is clear that Justus’s Virgin also derives from Boutsian models: the long curved contour of the cheek starting at the ear and culminating at the chin; the sharply parted hair; the bulbous peaks of the forehead; the arched eyebrows leading into the long, straight, thin nose; and the Cupid’s-bow lips (compare figs. 13, 14). Justus’s Black king—tall, slender, fashionably dressed, and elegantly poised— recalls figures in paintings by Dieric Bouts, especially those in the Justice of Emperor Otto
, in particular the two figures at far left and right in the Ordeal by Fire
(Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, Brussels; fig. 15).
Justus was also acquainted with Hugo van der Goes’s works. The copy of the Adoration of the Magi in front of the Stable on the Hill
(Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, fig. 16) shows the same popular motif of a Black servant offering the precious golden vessel to the Black king. This motif features prominently at the left in Justus’s Adoration
and may well be a detail that he recalled from Hugo’s original painting, assimilating it into his own work.
Despite the stylistic relationships with paintings by Bouts and van der Goes, there are certain details of The Met’s Adoration
that suggest that it was not painted in Ghent before Justus left for Italy, but instead was produced in Italy, reflecting experiences the painter had at Duke Federico da Montefeltro’s court at Urbino. These specific features include the prominent geometric structure of the composition and the architecture viewed in the background. Despite the general similarities between Bouts’s paintings, such as the Pearl of Brabant
and Justus’s painting, the latter shows an expanded and far grander space that places within it figures in two parallel tracks, evenly spaced and meticulously laid out with mathematical precision. The composition shows a masterful geometric schema that focuses on the magi and their gifts to the Christ Child within one grand rhombus, itself comprising four equal rhombuses (fig. 17). Directional diagonal lines bisect each of two adjoining rhombuses, highlighting the servant, Black king, and middle-aged king in one, and the old king, Virgin and Child, and Joseph in the other.
The calculated arrangement of figures in the grand, geometrically-conceived composition of the Adoration of the Magi
calls to mind the Italian paintings that Justus van Ghent must have seen in the environs of Urbino, when he first arrived there at the court of Duke Federico da Montefeltro. One of the duke’s favorite painters and his close personal friend was Piero della Francesca, who worked for the duke on an extended stay in Urbino from 1463–66. The duke and the painter shared an interest in architecture and in geometry. Piero dedicated his De prospective pingendi
(On Perspective in Painting) to Federico, and his Tractatus de quinque corporibus refularibus
(Treaise on the Five Regular Geometric Bodies) to the duke’s son Guidobaldo. Well known is Piero’s reliance on geometry for the compositions of his paintings. In his Baptism of Christ
(ca. 1440–50 or dated as late as 1460 by some scholars), for example, the circle of the heavenly sphere and the equilateral triangle with Christ, himself within a rhombus on earth, overlap; Christ is in the area common to both spheres as a kind of intermediary between heaven and earth (figs. 18, 19). Like the middle-aged king in Justus’s Adoration of the Magi
, Christ is placed directly on the vertical axis of the painting. There is also the strong diagonal that passes through the figures at the base of the Baptism of Christ
, a feature that, likewise, is used in Justus’s Adoration
. In his Flagellation of Christ
of about 1455–60, most probably made for the duke, Piero arranged his figures within an idealized architectural setting, carefully organized on a perspectival grid. Other paintings that Piero made for Federico, such as the Brera Madonna
of 1472–74 (Brera, Milan) show a carefully composed space, produced with Albertian principles in mind. By 1472–73, Piero della Francesca had left the Urbino court and was replaced by Netherlandish painters, among them “Giusto da Guanto,” but the former’s influence certainly must have remained in situ.
Another startling departure that we find in Justus van Ghent’s Adoration
has to do with the background, exterior view (fig. 20). Early Netherlandish depictions of this theme invariably show landscapes or cityscapes that are generically Flemish and locally recognizable, as in Bouts’s Pearl of Brabant
. In Justus’s painting, through the open columned window, there is a courtyard, and to the left of this (near the head of the Black king) there appears to be a multi-level palace set into the rocky hillside. Again to the left is a prominent circular, crenellated tower with windows, and—at the far left—another building with a classical-style pediment. Between these two buildings one can make out the blue sea that meets the sky at the horizon. There is, to my knowledge, nothing else like this in early Netherlandish painting at this time. This suggests that the background of The Met’s painting is a specific response to the local environment that Justus van Ghent experienced in Urbino. The ducal palace at Urbino was begun by Duke Federico da Montefeltro in the mid-fifteenth century, by the Florentine Maso di Bartolomeo. Its solid rock hillside setting was well protected from siege but very challenging for constructing a palace (figs. 21, 22). Giovanni Santi, a theatrical designer, painter, portraitist, and poet, who worked at the Urbino court from 1474 remarked upon the architecture of the palace, which grew into a formidable construction on the rocky overhang. He noted that Federico spared no expense and hired the greatest known architects of the day, in particular Luciano Laurana (ca. 1400/20–1479), the most highly ranked of them all. Federico especially admired Laurana, because like himself, he embraced Alberti’s ideas as expressed in De picture
(1435) and De re aedificatoria
(1483). Among the tenets of these treatises are that the painter should have a good knowledge of geometry, and the architect should be well versed in painting and mathematics.
One final detail of the painting may also signal familiarity with the ducal court and its habitués. Unusual for a Netherlandish Adoration of the Magi painting of about 1475 is the inclusion of three Black figures. In addition to the usual Black magus—who is so strikingly singled out here in elegant attire and pose—are two additional Black people among the magi’s retinue. The Italian courts, especially those of the d’Este, Sforza, and Gonzaga, are known to have had Black slaves, but also courtiers of more elevated rank, some of whom were musicians, favored attendants, and diplomatic messengers. Although current research has not shown evidence of Black people at the court of the Duke of Montefeltro, close connections especially with the Gonzaga (Federico's son, Guidobaldo, was married to Elisabetta Gonzaga) may have fostered a Black presence at the Urbino court. The fact that the three Black figures represented in The Met painting are so little differentiated in their physiognomy may suggest that the painter had only one model in mind or infrequent interaction with Black people at court.The Adoration of the Magi—a Suggestion for its Function and Placement:
As previously discussed, The Met’s Adoration
incorporates within it symbolic details that reference the Incarnation and Passion of Christ. It specifically signals Christ’s sacrifice for and redemption of humankind through his crucifixion on the cross. As such, it would have been an appropriate altarpiece or antependium at an altar where the celebration of the Eucharist would take place.
If Justus’s Adoration of the Magi
was indeed commissioned by Federico da Montefeltro, as proposed here, then one possibility for its placement would be the Chapel of Absolution at the ducal palace. Another option would be the Church of San Bernardino degli Zoccolanti, a Franciscan church (about 2.5 km outside Urbino) that was built at the order of Duke Federico da Montefeltro between 1482–91 (fig. 23). It was planned as the burial site for the duke, his family, and his successors. Francesco di Giorgio Martini was the architect with the help of the young Donato Bramante. The simple Latin cross interior has at its apse the main altar (fig. 24). Here, Piero della Francesca’s Sacra Conversazione
of a decade earlier eventually served as the altarpiece, placed there by Bramante at the specific request of Federico. Might Justus van Ghent’s Adoration
also have been installed there as the antependium of the altar or in another location of the same church? This could explain Joseph’s brown robe, as it is the color worn by the Franciscan Order.
Given the characteristic features of Netherlandish paintings, joined here with an unusual and striking geometric construction, as well as background details that suggest Urbino rather than any environs of Flanders, the proposal that Justus van Ghent painted the Adoration of the Magi
in about 1475 for Federico da Montefeltro in Urbino now appears more likely than previous theories. Christine Seidel’s recent research into the provenance of the painting does not support Louis Demonts’s assertion that the tüchlein was among the gifts made to the chapel of the dukes of Frías at Medina de Pomar near Burgos, Spain (Demonts 1925). There is no corroborating evidence that it entered the convent in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries or that Juan Fernández de Velasco gave it to the monastery in Medina de Pomar in the early seventeenth century. Furthermore, there is no specific notation of this painting in any of the surviving inventories.
Maryan W. Ainsworth 2022
 José María Salvador-González, “ The Symbol of Bed (Thalamus) in Images of the Annunciation of the 14th-15th Centuries in the Light of Latin Patristics,” International Journal of History and Cultural Studies
5, no. 4 (2019), pp. 49–70 and online DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.20431/2454-7654.0504005 www.arcjournals.org
 Friedrich Winkler, “Ein voritalienisches Werk des Justus van Gent,” Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst
28, n.f. (1915–16) pp. 321–27; Antoine de Schrijver and Roger Marijnissen, “Het Calvarie-Drieluik toegeschreven aan Justus van Gent en de bijhorende Predella. Materiële Geschiedenis,” Bulletin de l’Institut royal du patrimoine artistique
4 (1961), pp. 11–23; Francesca Bottacin, Giusto di Gand e la Comunione del Duca d’Urbino
, Padua, 2021, passim
; and Bart Fransen et al., forthcoming publication of the KIK/IRPA, Brussels research project. At the October 21, 2021 meeting of this research group, Stephan Kemperdick raised the interesting possibility that the Crucifixion Triptych
in fact may date later to around 1475–80. Bart Fransen and Dominique Deneffe noted that there are two important dates with which the triptych could feasibly be associated: the chapel foundation of 1462 and Laurent de Maech’s burial in 1483. This as well as other issues, including the artist(s) responsible for the Crucifixion Triptych
, remain open for discussion.
 J. Lavalleye, Les Primitifs flamands, I. Corpus de la Peinture des anciens Pays-Bas Méridionaux au Quinzième Siècle, 7, Le Palais ducal d’Urbin
, Brussels, 1964, pp. 1–43.
 Diane Wolfthal and Cathy Metzger, Corpus of Early Netherlandish Painting; 22, Los Angeles Museums
, Brussels, 2014, pp. 46–87.
 Compare the Virgin in the Adoration of the Magi
with the Virgin in the following Bouts or Bouts and workshop paintings: Virgin and Child
(The Met, 30.95.280
); Virgin and Child
(National Gallery of Art, Washington); Virgin and Child
(National Gallery, London); Virgin
(fragment from a Nativity
; Gemäldegalerie, Berlin); Virgin and Child (Städel Museum, Frankfurt).
 Concerning Federico’s architectural projects, see Vespiano da Bisticci, Le Vite
, ed. A. Greco, Florence, 1970–76, vol. 1, pp. 414–15. On the ducal palace at Urbino, see Olga Raggio, The Gubbio Studiolo and its Conservation, I. Federico da Montefeltro’s Palace at Gubbio and Its Studiolo
, New York, 1999, pp. 33–37.
 On the architecture of the ducal palace, see above.
 On this subject, see Revealing the African presence in Renaissance Europe
, ed. Joaneath Spicer, with contributions by Natalie Zemon Davis, Kate Lowe, Joaneath Spicer, Ben Vinson III, Baltimore, 2012; and Black Africans in Renaissance Europe
, ed. T. F. Earle and K. J. P. Lowe, Cambridge, England, 2005, especially the essays by Paul H. D. Kaplan, Sergio Tognetti, and Nelson H. Minnich.
 For their discussions with me on this matter, I particularly thank Kate Lowe, Paul Kaplan, and Sabine Eiche.
 Email of Christine Seidel to Maryan Ainsworth on July 24, 2020.
 Christine Seidel notes: there are no further donations to the monastery recorded that could have been made by Juan Fernández de Velasco. The only reference to tüchlein is in his personal inventory of goods in his house in Madrid drawn up after his death in 1613 that mentions “Nobenta y ocho lienços de Flandes grandes y chicos al tenple de los que conpro el Condestable en Flandes en la Jornada de las paces de Ynglaterra . . . ,” (ninety-eight Flemish tempera paintings on cloth that he bought in Flanders on the day of the peace of England . . .) cited after María Cruz de Carlos, “El VI Condestable de Castilla, coleccionista e intermediario de encargos reales (1592–1613)”, Arte y diplomacia de la Monarquía Hispánica en el siglo XVII
, ed. José Luis Colomer, Madrid, 2003, pp. 247–73, at p. 267, who published this inventory, which more likely was ephemeral decoration. Two other interesting patrons, Beatriz Manrique (died 1473/74?) and Mencía de Mendoza (died 1500; the wife of Pedro Fernández de Velasco, Contestable de Castilla) made donations to both Medina de Pomar and the cathedral in Burgos at the end of the fifteenth century, but there is no published documentary evidence to link the tüchlein to Medina de Pomar.