The Adoration of the Magi

Justus of Ghent (Joos van Wassenhove) (Netherlandish, active by 1460–died ca. 1480)
ca. 1465
Distemper on canvas
43 x 63 in. (109.2 x 160 cm)
Credit Line:
Bequest of George Blumenthal, 1941
Accession Number:
On view at The Met Fifth Avenue in Gallery 640
This Adoration (or Epiphany) is one of only two surviving works Justus of Ghent painted before going to Italy in 1469 to work for Federico da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino. Its composition may owe a debt to contemporary plays. Possibly commissioned for a convent near Burgos, Spain, the picture is painted on canvas and could thus be rolled for easy transport. The subdued tonality and matte surface are due to the gouachelike medium. An African magus (king) appears in Adorations beginning in the fifteenth century.
#2618. The Adoration of the Magi
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This painting is one of only two remaining that were painted by Justus of Ghent before he left for Italy in 1469 to work for Federigo da Montefeltro, duke of Urbino. The other is the Crucifixion Altarpiece in Sint-Baafskathedraal in Ghent. The somewhat stiff, elongated figures in both paintings are reminiscent of the style of Dieric Bouts (active by 1457–died 1475), in whose atelier Justus may have worked. Until he moved to Italy, Justus was an independent master in Ghent, and Saint Joseph and the two older magi reflect types found in works by Hugo van der Goes (active by 1467–died 1482), who, documents attest, was a close friend. Justus acted as a guarantor when Hugo entered the Ghent painters’ guild in 1467, and in turn, Hugo lent Justus money to help prepare for his Italian journey.

The setting is somewhat unusual for Adoration scenes (Sprinson de Jesus 1998). The stage-like space and arrangement of the main figures in two parallel diagonal lines recall mystery plays which were performed on the Feast of the Epiphany. The figures are shown in a formal, but decaying building, instead of the more typical stable. The room, particularly the bed upon which the Virgin sits, is reminiscent of the traditional thalamus virginis, or virgin’s bed chamber. The glass of wine and loaves of bread on the table (next to a bowl of milk soup, the traditional meal of the Christ Child in Netherlandish art) are evocative of the celebration of the Holy Eucharist. The Eucharistic theme is continued in the detail on the top of the vessel that a servant hands to the youngest magus—a pelican piercing its breast to feed its young with its own blood, symbolic of Christ’s sacrifice to save mankind. This vessel appears to be a ciborium, a covered cup traditionally used to hold the Eucharistic hosts.

The matte surface and subdued coloration of Justus’s Adoration of the Magi is due to the medium in which it was painted. Justus used distemper (a gouache-like medium) applied to fine-weave linen in a technique known as tüchlein (the German word for linen). Although paintings on wooden panels were more common during the fifteenth century, there was a thriving production of canvas paintings especially in Bruges and Mechelen. Due to the fragility of such works, Justus’s Adoration is among the small number of examples that survive.

The Adoration of the Magi was likely commissioned for the convent of Santa Clara near Burgos, Spain, from whence it came. Built in the second half of the fifteenth century, the convent served as the pantheon for the Fernández de Velasco family. The tüchlein may have served alone as an altarpiece, or it could have had wings. The paucity of surviving examples makes it difficult to clarify the original context of the painting.

Duques de Frías, Convento de Santa Clara, Medina de Pomar, near Burgos (probably until the 1880s); [Jacques Seligmann, Paris and New York, by 1922–24; sold to Blumenthal]; George Blumenthal, New York (1924–d. 1941; cat., vol. 1, 1926, pl. XLVI)
New York. F. Kleinberger Galleries. "Flemish Primitives," 1929, no. 17 (lent by George and Florence Blumenthal).

Bruges. Musée Communal des Beaux-Arts. "Le siècle des primitifs flamands," June 26–September 11, 1960, no. 25.

Detroit Institute of Arts. "Masterpieces of Flemish Art: Van Eyck to Bosch," October–December 1960, no. 20.

New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Fifty Centuries," November 15, 1970–February 15, 1971, no. 207.

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. 7.

Friedrich Winkler. Die altniederländische Malerei: Die Malerei in Belgien und Holland von 1400–1600. Berlin, 1924, p. 114, describes the character of this picture as between [Dieric] Bouts and Hugo [van der Goes] and notes [erroneously?] that it was recently with Kleinberger in Paris.

Max J. Friedländer. Die altniederländische Malerei. Vol. 3, Dierick Bouts und Joos van Gent. Berlin, 1925, pp. 84–86, 129, no. 101, pl. 83, as painted in Ghent, about 1466; mentions a compositionally related Epiphany in a private collection, Paris (no. 102, pl. 84, formerly collection Ernest Odiot).

Louis Demonts. "Essai sur Juste de Gand: À propos d'une "Adoration des Mages" et d'une "Mort de la Vierge"." Revue d'art 25 (January–June 1925), pp. 56–62, 65–66, 68–69, 72, ill. [same article published in Dutch in Onze Kunst, vol. 41, January–June 1925, pp. 51–70], notes that this picture belonged to Jacques Seligmann and came from the chapel of the dukes of Frías at Medina de Pomar near Burgos; comments on the unusual support and medium, observing that although few such works have survived, this medium was frequently employed in the Netherlands, and the Spanish climate may account for the picture's good state of preservation; observes that the Virgin receiving the Magi seated at the foot of a bed, and the rather unique three-legged table occur as well in an illumination in the Hortulus animae [Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, now generally attributed to Simon Bening]; mentions a related composition—a mediocre school work—in the Trevi museum; concludes that our picture must precede the "Communion of the Apostles" in the Urbino museum (Palazzo Ducale), and was produced at a time when Hugo's influence was greatest for the artist; sees the Christ child in Hugo's Virgin and Child in the Städelsches Kunstinstitut, Frankfurt, as the model for the child in our picture; suggests that the man in green wearing a red cap may be a portrait of Hugo van der Goes, and that the bearded figure at the extreme left could be a self-portrait.

Stella Rubinstein-Bloch. Catalogue of the Collection of George and Florence Blumenthal. Vol. 1, Paintings—Early Schools. Paris, 1926, unpaginated, pl. 46.

[Friedrich] Winkler in Allgemeines Lexikon der bildenden Künstler. Ed. Hans Vollmer. Vol. 19, Leipzig, 1926, p. 354.

Otto Pächt. "Review of M. J. Friedländer, Dierick Bouts—Joos van Gent, 1925." Kritische Berichte 1–2 (1927–29), p. 49, rejects Friedländer's placement of this picture in Joos's Ghent years and is firmly convinced that it was painted in Italy after the "Communion of the Apostles".

Franz Dülberg. Niederländische Malerei der Spätgotik und Renaissance. Potsdam, 1929, p. 80.

[Hippolyte] Fierens-Gevaert and Paul Fierens. Histoire de la peinture flamande des origines à la fin du XVe siècle. Vol. 3, La maturité de l'art flamand. Paris, 1929, p. 36.

Sidney P. Noe. "Flemish Primitives in New York." American Magazine of Art 21 (January 1930), pp. 34–35.

Chandler Rathfon Post. A History of Spanish Painting. Vol. 4, The Hispano-Flemish Style in Northwestern Spain. Cambridge, Mass., 1933, part 1, p. 26, suggests that Joos van Gent and Hugo enjoyed the same popularity in Spain that they did in Italy, and mentions the Spanish provenance of our picture as evidence for this.

Hans Tietze. Meisterwerke europäischer Malerei in Amerika. Vienna, 1935, p. 333, pl. 133 [English ed., "Masterpieces of European Painting in America," New York, 1939, p. 318, pl. 133], as probably painted in 1466, or at least before 1468, in Ghent.

G. J. Hoogewerff. Vlaamsche kunst en Italiaansche Renaissance. Mechelen, [1935?], pp. 62–63, as painted before Joos went to Italy.

J[acques]. Lavalleye in "De vlaamsche schilderkunst tot ongeveer 1480." Geschiedenis van de vlaamsche kunst. Ed. Stan Leurs. Antwerp, 1936, p. 207, dates it 1464 or shortly thereafter.

Jacques Lavalleye. Juste de Gand: Peintre de Frédéric de Montefeltre. Louvain, 1936, pp. 79–81, pl. 6, as an early work, painted in the Netherlands; incorrectly describes the painting as a transfer to canvas.

Francis Henry Taylor. "The Blumenthal Collection." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 36 (October 1941), p. 197.

Hulin de Loo. Pedro Berruguete et les portraits d'Urbin. [Brussels], 1942, pp. 15–16 n. 2.

Harry B. Wehle. "A Painting by Joos van Gent." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 2 (December 1943), pp. 133–36, ill. p. 137 and on front cover (color detail).

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, pp. 54–56, ill., date it 1467, shortly after the Crucifixion in St. Bavo's, Ghent, noting that "the awkwardly placed figures and their odd poses are signs of immaturity that disappear in works of his Italian period".

Ernest Lotthé. La pensée chrétienne dans la peinture flamande et hollandaise. Lille, 1947, vol. 1, pp. 74–75, pl. 40; vol. 2, p. 324.

Erwin Panofsky. Early Netherlandish Painting: Its Origins and Character. Cambridge, Mass., 1953, vol. 1, pp. 340–42, 503 n. 2 (to p. 341); vol. 2, pl. 292, calls it his earliest known picture; observes that the "three-legged coffee table" makes its first appearance in Dieric Bouts's Adoration in the Prado.

Leo van Puyvelde. La peinture flamande au siècle des van Eyck. Paris, 1953, pp. 239, 242, ill. (detail).

Jacques Lavalleye in Juste de Gand, Berruguete, et la cour d'Urbino. Exh. cat., Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Ghent. Ghent, 1957, pp. 9, 14–15, 176, ill.

Paul Eeckhout. "Un peintre flamand a la cour d'Urbino, Juste de Gand." Jardin des arts 37 (November 1957), pp. 14, 16, ill.

A. Hyatt Mayor. "The Gifts that Made the Museum." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 16 (November 1957), p. 104, ill.

Friedrich Winkler. "Dieric Bouts und Joos van Gent: Ausstellungen in Brüssel und Gent." Kunstchronik 11 (January 1958), p. 8.

Colin Eisler. "Juan de Flandes's Saint Michael and Saint Francis." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 18 (December 1959), pp. 129, 131, ill.

Erik Larsen. Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York. Utrecht, 1960, pp. 66, 117, fig. 15.

Jacqueline Folie in Flanders in the Fifteenth Century: Art and Civilization. Exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts Groeninge Museum. Detroit, 1960, pp. 113–16, no. 20, ill., observes that the motif of the Virgin seated on a bed holding the Christ Child also appears in the central panel of Dieric Bouts's "Pearl of Brabant" (Alte Pinakothek, Munich); notes that Juan Fernández de Velasco, sixth Duke of Frías and ambassador to England, travelled in Flanders around 1600, and the painting may have been acquired at this time.

Germain Seligman. Merchants of Art: 1880–1960, Eighty Years of Professional Collecting. New York, 1961, p. 127, pl. 136, as purchased by George Blumenthal from Germain Seligman in 1924, following Jacques Seligmann's death in 1923; notes that Berenson confirmed the attribution to Joos van Gent.

Karl Arndt. "Gerard Davids 'Anbetung der Könige' nach Hugo van der Goes." Münchner Jahrbuch der bildenden Kunst, 3rd ser., 12 (1961), p. 175 n. 88.

Paul Philippot. "La fin du XVème siècle et les origines d'une nouvelle conception de l'image dans la peinture des Pays-Bas." Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts Bulletin 11 (March–June 1962), p. 10.

Henri Pauwels. Musée Groeninge: Catalogue. Exh. cat.Bruges, 1963, p. 65, sees a reflection of this picture in an Adoration in the Groeninge museum, Bruges, ascribed to an Antwerp master, first quarter of the 16th century; believes the Bruges picture is based on a lost Adoration by Joos van Gent.

Friedrich Winkler. Das Werk des Hugo van der Goes. Berlin, 1964, pp. 308–9.

Jacques Lavalleye. Le palais ducal d'Urbin [Les primitifs flamands, I. Corpus de la peinture des anciens pays-bas méridionaux au quinzième siècle, vol. 7]. Brussels, 1964, pp. 25–27, makes detailed formal comparisons between this picture and the Urbino "Communion of the Apostles".

Ursula Nilgen. "The Epiphany and the Eucharist: On the Interpretation of Eucharistic Motifs in Mediaeval Epiphany Scenes." Art Bulletin 49 (December 1967), pp. 315–16, fig. 15, remarks that the small table—usually circular—that appears frequently in 15th- and early 16th-century paintings, especially in Germany and the Netherlands, was intended to depict and symbolize the altar and thus the Eucharist; notes that by means of a wine glass and bread, Joos has clearly indicated the eucharistic importance of the table in our picture.

Ignace Vandevivere. La cathédrale de Palencia et l'église paroissiale de Cervera de Pisuerga [Les primitifs flamands I. Corpus de la peinture des anciens pays-bas méridionaux au quinzième siècle, vol. 10]. Brussels, 1967, p. 102, comments on similarities in our picture and an Adoration of the Magi in the parish church of Cervera de Pisuerga ascribed to Juan de Flandes.

Charles D. Cuttler. Northern Painting from Pucelle to Bruegel. New York, 1968, pp. 148–49, ill.

Max J. Friedländer et al. Early Netherlandish Painting. Vol. 3, Dieric Bouts and Joos van Gent. New York, 1968, pp. 47–49, 74, no. 101, pl. 105.

Jan Bialostocki. "The Eye and the Window." Festschrift für Gert von der Osten. Ed. Horst Keller et al. [Cologne], 1970, p. 167, comments on the reflection on the orb held by the Magus at the right.

Calvin Tomkins. Merchants and Masterpieces: The Story of The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1970, p. 281 [rev., enl. ed., 1989].

Marilyn Aronberg Lavin. "Notes on the Iconography of Piero della Francesca's Fresco of Sigismondo Pandolfo Malatesta before St. Sigismund . . ." Art Bulletin 56 (September 1974), p. 365 n. 99, observes that the column fragment on the top step is "symbolic, representing the Flagellation by its shape, which follows that of the relic in the Saint Zeno Chapel, Santa Prassede, Rome".

J. P. De Bruyn in Gent, duizend jaar kunst en cultuur: Muurschilderkunst, schilderkunst, tekenkunst, graveerkunst, beeldhouwkunst. Exh. cat., Museum voor Schone Kunsten. Vol. 1, Ghent, 1975, p. 119.

Alfons W. Biermann. "Die Miniaturenhandschriften des Kardinals Albrecht von Brandenburg (1514–1545)." Aachener Kunstblätter 46 (1975), p. 122.

V. Denis. La peinture flamande 15e–16e–17e siècles. Brussels, 1976, p. 90.

Howard Hibbard. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York, 1980, p. 193, fig. 355.

Paul Vandenbroeck. "Laatmiddeleeuwse doekschilderkunst in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden: Repertorium der nog bewaarde werken." Jaarboek van het Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten Antwerpen (1982), pp. 30, 56.

Catheline Périer-d'Ieteren. "La technique picturale de la peinture flamande du XVe siècle." La pittura nel XIV e XV secolo: il contributo dell'analisi tecnica alla storia dell'arte (Atti del XXIV congresso internazionale di storia dell'arte, 3). Ed. Henk W. van Os and J. R. J. van Asperen de Boer. Bologna, [1983], p. 15.

James Snyder. Northern Renaissance Art: Painting, Sculpture, the Graphic Arts from 1350 to 1575. New York, 1985, pp. 165–66, calls it "Boutsian".

Paul H. D. Kaplan. The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art. PhD diss., Boston University. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1985, pp. 113, 278 n. 77, observes that the "swarthy but not African" Magi in Rogier van der Weyden's Bladelin and Columba altarpieces (respectively Gemäldegalerie, Berlin, and Alte Pinakothek, Munich) are imitated here by Joos.

Ignace Vandevivere. Juan de Flandes. Exh. cat., Memlingmuseum. Bruges, 1985, pp. 44, 46, ill. (detail).

Ignace Vandevivere. Juan de Flandes. Exh. cat., Museo Nacional del Prado. [Madrid], 1986, p. 61, sees in our picture a model for the group of Balthazar and his servant in Juan's Adoration of the Magi in Palencia (Iglesia de Santa María del Castillo).

Introduction by James Snyder in The Metropolitan Museum of Art: The Renaissance in the North. New York, 1987, pp. 10, 30–32, ill. (color).

Diane Wolfthal. "The Technique of Early Netherlandish Canvases." Le dessin sous-jacent dans la peinture. Ed. Hélène Verougstraete-Marcq and Roger van Schoute. Colloque 6, Louvain-la-Neuve, 1987, p. 86.

Colin Eisler. "What Takes Place in the Getty Annunciation?" Gazette des beaux-arts, 6th ser., 111 (March 1988), p. 193, observes that "paintings on linen were sometimes varnished at a later date to make them resemble costlier images," as was true for this picture.

Hans J. van Miegroet. Gerard David. Antwerp, 1989, pp. 43, 46, 78, 90 n. 33, ill. (color), compares the pose of the attendant in white at the far left of our picture with the armed figure of Abraham in Dieric Bouts's representatioin of Abraham and Melchizedek in his altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament in Louvain [Sint Pieterskirk], observing that this awkward gesture "formed part of the artistic stock in trade in Ghent in the 1470s"; also sees a relationship between the gestures of the kneeling king, Saint Joseph, and the Christ Child with those of comparable figures in the Adoration of the Magi from a "Davidian" book of hours of 1486 (Escorial, Madrid, fig. 73).

Diane Wolfthal. The Beginnings of Netherlandish Canvas Painting: 1400–1530. Cambridge, 1989, pp. 23, 25, 32–34, 41–42, 204–5, nn. 1–6 to cat no. 5, no. 5, figs. 19, 23, 26, 39, 45, 62, 63 (overall, details, and reverse), notes that "the rudimentary composition and awkward features, such as the relationship of Joseph's legs to the bed, suggest that this an early work by Joos, perhaps even earlier than his Crucifixion triptych in Ghent".

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, pp. 70–71, no. 14, ill. (color).

Paul Eeckhout. "Hugo van der Goes et le mythe de Joos van Wassenhove." Bulletin des Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique (1992–93), pp. 20, 30–31, 33, ill.

Paul Philippot. La peinture dans les anciens pays-bas, XVe–XVIe siècles. Paris, 1994, pp. 46–47, 289, ill.

Hans Belting and Christiane Kruse. Die Erfindung des Gemäldes: Das erste Jahrhundert der niederländischen Malerei. Munich, 1994, pp. 222–23, pls. 162–63, date it about 1468; consider it likely that Juan Fernando de Velasco, 6th Duke of Frías, acquired the picture when he was in Flanders about 1600.

Paul Eeckhout in Les primitifs flamands et leur temps. Ed. Brigitte de Patoul and Roger van Schoute. Louvain-la-Neuve, 1994, pp. 422–23, ill., ascribes our Adoration to Hugo van der Goes and rejects the reconstruction of Joos's oeuvre from his documented "Communion of the Apostles" in Urbino.

Paula Nuttall in The Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 17, New York, 1996, pp. 702–3.

Mark L. Evans in The Dictionary of Art. Ed. Jane Turner. Vol. 20, New York, 1996, p. 781, comments on similarities between the figures of the Virgin and eldest king in our picture and these figures in an Adoration by the Master of the Virgin among Virgins (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).

Richard C. Trexler. The Journey of the Magi: Meanings in History of a Christian Story. Princeton, 1997, pp. 111, 114, ill., includes our "effeminate black third king" among magi figures in art that "appear all but female in their physiognomy".

Mary Sprinson de Jesús 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. 25, 41, 43, 70–71, 84, 105–6, 302, 397, no. 7, ill. (color, overall and detail), dates it about 1465.

Roland Krischel in Genie ohne Namen: Der Meister des Bartholomäus-Altars. Ed. Rainer Budde and Roland Krischel. Exh. cat., Wallraf-Richartz-Museum. Cologne, 2001, pp. 39, 330, ill., comments on compositional affinities between this Adoration and one in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, which he ascribes to the "Master of the Saint Bartholomew Altar and assistant (?)".

Catheline Périer-d'Ieteren. Dieric Bouts: The Complete Works. Brussels, 2006, p. 209, mentions this picture in his discussion of Bouts's influence on Joos van Ghent.

Colin Eisler. "From Northern 'Tüchlein' to Tuscan 'Trompe l'Oeil'." Emil Bosshard, Paintings Conservator (1945–2006): Essays by Friends and Colleagues. Ed. Maria de Peverelli et al. Florence, 2009, p. 38, fig. 2.

Sophie Scully and Christine Seidel. "A Tüchlein by Justus van Ghent: The Adoration of the Magi in The Metropolitan Museum of Art Re-Examined." Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art. Vol. 8, Winter 2016, figs. 1 (color), 4 (x-radiograph), 5a (horizontal thread angle map), 5b (vertical thread angle map), 6 (reverse during 1957 treatment), 7 (color detail), 8 (infrared photograph detail), 9a (infrared reflectogram detail), 9b (color detail), 11, 12 (color photomicrograph details), 13 (color detail) [].