Art/ Collection/ Art Object

The Adoration of the Magi

Netherlandish (Antwerp Mannerist) Painter (ca. 1520)
Oil on wood
27 1/8 x 21 1/2 in. (68.9 x 54.6 cm)
Credit Line:
Bequest of Helen L. Bullard, in memory of Harold C. Bullard, 1921
Accession Number:
Not on view
The Adoration of the Magi was a favorite theme in Antwerp Mannerist painting, which emerged in the first quarter of the sixteenth century and is characterized by its extravagant and theatrical style. Showing a preference for flamboyant gestures, exotic costumes, and eccentric color effects, works such as the present picture were frequently mass-produced for sale on Antwerp’s open art market and for export to southern Europe. The setting, with the crumbling architecture and drawn curtain, here recalls the theatre, as does the stage-like arrangement of the elaborately dressed figures around the Virgin and Child.

The Adoration of the Magi was a favorite theme of the Antwerp Mannerists. Antwerp Mannerism emerged in the first quarter of the sixteenth century, and is characterized by its flamboyant and theatrical style. This painting is relatively subdued for an Antwerp Mannerist image. The architectural ruin with views onto the landscape is characteristic, but the figures and their costumes are more sedate than the usual curved, elongated figures and artificially fluttering drapery. The use of couleur changeante is in keeping with the vivid colors and somewhat artificial luminosity of such paintings. The clothing is theatrical rather than demonstrative of fashions of the time. The setting too, with the crumbling architecture and drawn curtain, evokes the theatre stage, as does the positions of the figures around the central focus of the Virgin and Child. This presentation is reminiscent of religious dramas that were enacted on holy days during this era. The owl perched on the curtain rod is a motif that appears in several Antwerp Mannerist paintings, and was often thought to be an attribute of the work of Herri Met de Bles.

Paintings of the Adoration of the Magi were frequently mass-produced to be sold on Antwerp’s open art market known as the Pand, resulting in many copies or partial copies of the best-loved compositions. Friedländer believes the prototype of the MMA painting to be an Adoration of the Magi in the Philadelphia Museum of Art (see Max J. Friedländer, "Die Antwerpener Manieristen von 1520." Jahrbuch der Königlich Preuzischen Kunstsammlungen 36 [1915], pp. 65–91). He attributes it to the Master of the Van Groote Adoration, although it is now attributed to an anonymous Antwerp Mannerist master. The composition and the figures in the Philadelphia version are strikingly similar to those here, but it does not include the same architectural setting and draped curtain (Sintobin 1998; the artist’s monogram discussed by Sintobin is not visible, and it is unclear whether it ever existed). Dan Ewing (1978) writes that the composition derives from a late work by Jan de Beer, a leading Antwerp Mannerist. There are some similarities in the architectural setting and draped curtain in the MMA painting and those found in De Beer’s Nativity Altarpiece in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne. There is also a very similar Adoration of the Magi in the Staatliche Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe, which dates to 1519 and is more extravagantly painted. A nearly identical composition can be found in the collection of the Szépmüvészeti Múzeum in Budapest, which is believed to be by a different artist within the same workshop as the painter of the Museum’s work. However, amongst the Antwerp Mannerists, repetitions of the same composition did not necessarily indicate that they were all made in the same workshop.

Other versions include: the central panel of a triptych that was sold at Sotheby’s, London, Old Master Paintings, December 16, 1999; one in a private collection in Madrid; the central panel of a triptych in the collection of G. Banchi, Florence, attributed to Adriaen Isenbrant; and a version attributed to the Master of the van Groote Adoration in the collection of the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen.

[Maryan W. Ainsworth 2012]
Helen Lister Bullard, New York (by 1916–d. 1921)
Zanesville, Ohio. Art Institute of Zanesville. "Christmas Exhibition," December 1–28, 1947, no catalogue?

Corning, N.Y. Corning Museum of Glass. "A Century of Toys," December 4, 1956–January 27, 1957, no catalogue?

San Antonio. Witte Memorial Museum. December 2, 1960–January 4, 1961, no catalogue?

Louisville. Junior Art Gallery. "Christmas Exhibition," December 10, 1962–January 7, 1963, no catalogue?

Huntington, N.Y. Heckscher Museum. "Treasure Hunting in a Painting," March 8–April 5, 1964, no catalogue?

New York. IBM Gallery. "The Christmas Story in Art," December 13, 1965–January 8, 1966, no. 9.

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. 67.

H[arry]. B. W[ehle]. "Bequests of Paintings." Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin 16 (December 1921), p. 263, calls this a Flemish work from about 1520, probably by the same hand as the similar Adoration in the Brussels Museum (Museés Royaux des Beaux-Arts).

Harry B. Wehle and Margaretta Salinger. The Metropolitan Museum of Art: A Catalogue of Early Flemish, Dutch and German Paintings. New York, 1947, p. 127, ill., ascribe it to an Antwerp Mannerist about 1520; note that a cruder version is in the Johnson Collection in the Philadelphia Museum (no. 383) and a version dated 1519 is in the Kunsthalle, Karlsruhe (no. 145).

Erik Larsen. Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York. Utrecht, 1960, p. 93.

Colin Eisler. "Erik Larsen, Les primitifs flamands au Musée Metropolitain de New York, 1960." Art Bulletin 46 (March 1964), p. 104.

Georges Marlier. Pierre Coeck d'Alost. Brussels, 1966, p. 144.

Susan Urbach. Early Netherlandish Painting. New York, 1971, unpaginated, no. 33, illustrates and discusses an example of this composition in the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, which she presumes to have been the central panel of a triptych and ascribes to an Antwerp Mannerist, about 1520; mentions other versions in the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen [now in Bamberg] and in a private collection, Madrid; notes that our version is the closest to the one in Budapest and that they can be presumed to have been made in the same workshop after the same prototype.

John G. Johnson Collection: Catalogue of Flemish and Dutch Paintings. Philadelphia, 1972, p. 55.

Dan Chalmer Ewing. "The Paintings and Drawings of Jan de Beer." PhD diss., University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, 1978, p. 173, no. 3, lists our picture with other versions of this Adoration, proposing that the original was a lost work by Jan de Beer.

Susanne Urbach in Eva Szmodis-Eszláry and Susanne Urbach. Middeleeuwse Nederlandse Kunst uit Hongarije. Ed. Onno Helleman. Exh. cat., Museum Catharijneconvent. Utrecht, 1990, p. 22.

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. 260–61, 314, no. 67, ill. (color), notes that the elaborate costumes of the magi are unrelated to contemporary fashion and reflect instead theatre costume of the time; adds that the staged arrangement of the figures may also derive from tableau vivants performed in churches and processions.

John Oliver Hand. Joos van Cleve: The Complete Paintings. New Haven, 2004, pp. 46, 206 n. 18, considers the Magi appearing in the many Adorations by Antwerp Mannerists generic types with only minor variations.

Susan Urbach. Early Netherlandish Paintings. London, 2015, vol. 2, pp. 39, 45–47 n. 10, fig. 30.8 (color), under no. 30.

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