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How Artists Gave the Three Wise Men a Makeover

By Catriona Miller

No-one can resist a party and everyone loves a bit of bling, especially at Christmas. This is the story of how artists took the Three Wise Men from the Nativity and went wild.

In Love Actually, the 2003 film which is now a Christmas institution, there is an on-going joke about a school Nativity play which, in order to give a role to everyone, includes a lobster and octopus. Cast-of-thousands interpretations of the story of the birth of Jesus are nothing new. They provided a way for artists to show off their skill and for patrons to show off their wealth. When Palla Strozzi, a wealthy Florentine banker, commissioned artist Gentile da Fabriano to paint an altarpiece, he wanted one worthy of his status. The Adoration of the Magi provided the perfect narrative. The three kings are dressed in sumptuously-patterned fabrics; they arrive with an extended retinue of men, horses, dogs and even falcons. The entire surface of the panel shimmers with gold leaf and the painting sits within an elaborate triple arched gilded frame. It is all about show.

Strozzi's altarpiece is a far cry from the original Biblical narrative of three wise men who came from the East following a star. Earlier artists had stuck to that simple story. In the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua - another commission for a wealthy banker - Giotto produced a restrained interpretation, devoid of virtually all unnecessary detail. The magi, looking far more like wise men than kings, are plainly dressed with only two attendants. Camels symbolise their journey from the East. There is a star, stable, manger and angel guarding the Holy Family. Nothing else.

Giotto had other reasons for keeping it simple: he was painting as whole room, walls and ceiling. For artists commissioned with a single work, the temptation was always to go big. Botticelli painted a number of Adorations during his career, arguably each more complex than the last. The version in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, keeps the simple piety of Giotto's version but turns it into a Hollywood epic. The landscape stretches out into the distance, an elegant tree reaches towards heaven, figures and horses crowd in on either side creating a symmetrical circle of worship. Botticelli cannot resist displaying his skill with perspective and his knowledge of classical architecture: the 'stable' is an oddly formal ruin. It is symbolic - the pagan world crumbles with the arrival of Christ - as well as compositional, providing a central structure around which the colours and shapes of the figures undulate elegantly.

One thing which all these versions have in common is an older kneeling King. It was established practise to vary the ages of the wise men, to represent the common faith of different generations. Increasingly they were also distinguished by race, to symbolise the spread of Christianity throughout the world. One might argue the Black kings are tokenistic, certainly they are often the youngest of the trio and the one positioned furthest from Jesus. However, they are also some of the most prominent representations of Black figures in European art history. The striking figure of Balthazar dominates the entire right of Dürer's composition. The viewer's eye is drawn by his dark cloak, a link between the blue of the Virgin's dress and the sky beyond; to his red hose, white glove and feathers which again mirror patches of colour elsewhere. Most striking of all, the middle King, looks not at Jesus, but at the younger Black figure. Dürer's Adoration is a clever mix of new Renaissance ideas - classical architecture and observed naturalism - and the sort of decorative details seen in the Strozzi Altarpiece. The middle King is exquisitely dressed, not to showcase the wealth of a patron but to emphasise the status of the artist: it is in fact a self-portrait of Dürer.

By the seventeenth century, the mantra was more, more, more. A reinvigorated Catholic church, battling the growth of Protestantism, wanted to wow congregations with scale, colour and drama. Divine-right monarchs demanded propaganda expressions of power and glory. Artists were competing against each other to produce more realistic, more exciting works. Rubens' Adoration is huge - nearly five metres wide - and he chucks everything in. Flying cherubs, cute curly-headed kids, gratuitous nudity, burning torches, turbans, camels, columns, colour and pattern - you might almost expect to see an octopus. Rubens doesn't lose sight of the real story: the focus remains the still, symbolically-bright figure of Jesus, but there is a lot to distract even the most pious viewer.

Religious art has always been about more than religion. Politics, patronage and self-promotion, competition and conspicuous consumption have always played a part. If Christmas often seems more about excess, ostentation and decorations than it does about the birth of Jesus, then the same is true of paintings of the subject. But ultimately they made images of celebration. And who doesn't love a party?


About the Writer:

Catriona Miller is an independent art historian and writer on art based in the UK. She has taught and lectured on all aspects of art history and is currently researching women artists in British collections and issues of nationalism and identity in nineteenth-century landscape painting.

Twitter: @cmillerartlife


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