Gossaert’s Adoration

Imagine a world without the constant barrage of digital images.  The Renaissance was such a world where fantastic paintings like Jan Gossaert’s Adoration of the Kings were viewed only in special places like churches or abbeys.  This painting was finished in 1515.  Among the greatest technological achievements at the time were European ships just beginning to circumnavigate the globe.

Imagine working on this painting for five years, for that is how long it took Gossaert to finish, without assistants.    

Jan Gossaert (Jean Gossart) and (Mabuse) 

The Adoration of the Kings, 1510-1515, oil on oak panel, 71×64”, National Gallery of London.  

Almost six feet in height and 5’4” in width it is an arresting image; visually and conceptually dynamic and mesmerizing both intellectually and emotionally.  The huge painting has an imposing physical presence.  A wonder to behold, meticulously painted details, it portrays the miracle birth but is also rich in the normal realities of everyday life in sixteenth-century Europe.  

Three wise men had come to adore the miracle heard around the land.  They are Balthasar (far left), Caspar (knelling), and Melchior (far right).  The Christ child and St. Mary are in the geometric center of the painting.  St. Joseph, in a striking red robe, studies the angels.  The crowds peer in hoping to catch a glimpse.  If you were fortunate to be able to travel to a painting such as this, it was a marvel to behold, it was an event.  

Balthasar brought myrrh, a Near East aromatic tree gum resin used for medicine, perfumes, and incense.  Caspar brought gold, and Melchior offered frankincense, an African aromatic tree gum used as incense.  Incense is used by every major religion as symbolizing prayers sent heavenward.  

Historically referred to as the Magi, the plural of Magus, which were an ancient Persian hereditary priest caste.   

The wise man Caspar (Jasper) is depicted as the real life Daniel van Boechout, a wealthy, grey-haired benefactor.  Boechout commissioned Gossaert to paint an altarpiece for the Abbey of St. Adrian, in Graamont, Flanders.  Caspar’s gift was gold.  The Christ child holds one of the coins.  St. Mary’s blue robe protectively envelopes the child visually emphasizing the event. Note Gossaert’s sensitivity and talent to convey the reverence and awe expected to be seen on the faces and gestures of the people looking in.  

Balthasar waiting his turn, holds his gift of myrrh, carried in an ornate gold tabernacle.  His attendant holds his long robe and straightens a fold on his shoulder.  Gossaert excelled in enumerating details.  Balthasar’s colleague wears a silver collar jewelry where Gossaert signed his name, one of two times.  

Gossaert also signed his name and more prominently in the red trim along Balthasar’s jeweled head covering.  

Melchior brought frankincense carried in a lavish and expensive jeweled gold tabernacle.  

A very popular event as many people cue in line, with the overflow extending on horses over the hill.  

As everyone knows, the three wise men had followed the “Christmas Star.”  The Holy Spirit, the white dove seen just beneath the star, hovers over the entire proceedings.  Returning to our time for a moment, this month witnessed a corresponding celestial event in December.  Named the “great configuration,” Jupiter and Saturn merged in the evening sky, a rare occurrence every 800 years.  

The event has drawn huge crowds who wait in line.  Note Gossaert’s variety of expressions in their faces and gestures.  The grand architecture filling the background is an amalgam of real life and Gossaert’s imagination.  

The decay of this palace ruin sharply conveys the story’s plot line that there was no room available at the inn.  Weeds and crumbling tiles are everywhere.  Roofs have fallen in.  A dog gnaws a bare bone.  Interestingly, Balthasar’s feet wear leather “boots.”  Boechout as “Caspar” has laid down his ornate hat and scepter.  

Spectacular and colorful angels fly in, filling the skies, to pay homage.  Heaven and Earth collide with this momentous occasion.   

A unique and nascent halo surrounds the head of the Christ child symbolizing the Trinity.  

Jan Gossaert was one of the leading painters of his time.  From his hometown of Maubeuge, Netherlands came his nickname “Mabuse.”  Born circa 1478 and died in 1532.  Gossaert earned the respect of his peers for his ability to paint in oil convincing atmospheric spaces and light itself.  And his “always teeming” details.  His commissions took him all over Europe including the Royal House of Denmark.  His paintings were widely influential in his time and remain admired today, five hundred years later.