Claudia Pritchard on a festive masterpiece which – as a result of technology and the requirements of being covid-secure – can now be viewed as never before.
“A Foreign Gentleman has brought into England a picture that astonishes every person who has seen it… It is to be viewed.. from ten in the morning till six in the evening, at one shilling per person.”
London auctioneer John Greenwood profited twice over in April 1788, from a year’s worth of shillings and from a hearty fee, when he auctioned in his Leicester Square saleroom a “superb picture” packed with detail, The Adoration of the Kings.
The picture, in oil on oak panels, is by Jan Gossaert. Also known as John Mabuse, after his Flemish birthplace, Maubeug. Or Jan Mabuse. Or Jennyn van Hennegouwe, from his natal province Hainaut. Or, as he signed himself in later works, Joannes Malbodius.
Admirers of the picture who attributed it to the artist’s contemporary Albrecht Dürer could perhaps be forgiven for their confusion, but not their lack of observation: Gossaert signed his name not once but twice on the work of art which, over its 500 or so years, has undergone a journey as complex as that of the Magi it depicts.
The Adoration of the Kings has been in Britain since that sale of 1788. Bought seven years later by the Earl of Carlisle, who took it to the ancestral home, Castle Howard in Yorkshire, it resided there through generations until 1911 when it was acquired at below market price by the National Gallery, of which the 9th earl was a trustee.
Donors and supporters included Herbert Asquith’s government and the then new National Art Collections Fund, now the Art Fund.
Today it is one of the most loved pictures in the collection, and now it adds another leg to its journey with a leap into the digital world. Already lined up for special attention this Christmas, the well-travelled Adoration took Covid-19 in its stride, lending itself to closer examination by individual viewers, placed in pods, with sound. Thus isolated, visitors – at least until the latest Tier changes – could view details magnified many times over, so that every wisp of ermine or human hair becomes clearly defined.
The Adoration of the Kings dates from around 1510, but first appears in record when Albert and Isabella, rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, acquired it from the Benedictine abbey south of Ghent for which it was painted, and installed it in the palace chapel in Brussels.
Spared in a fire that destroyed the palace, it passed from upper hand to upper hand as the complicated balance of power shifted across Europe, until its London sale.
While primarily a devotional object, its generous detail, inventive scenes and human interest have endeared it to many beyond the Christian faithful.
At its centre is a young mother and newborn child – sitting up like a six-month-old baby, it is true, but the picture’s new arrivals, the three wise men, have travelled far.
Kneeling in reverence at the seated Madonna nursing Jesus is Caspar, richly robed and presenting precious gold, but with his own ceremonial regalia laid aside, and flawed like any man.
A hairy mole mars his face – here is a face so unremarkable it is surely drawn from life and may represent the wealthy donor who originally paid for the work.
To the right of this trio, a second king, Melchior, waits his turn, with attendants standing by. Examinations of the intricately detailed underdrawings – even the fingernails and fabric wrinkles were sketched in – show that these figures were much reworked.
Melchior bears frankincense, ornately gift-wrapped in precious metals and jewels, this reminder of a reliquary a pre-echo of the fate that awaits the child.
But the figure that modern viewers find particularly arresting is the black king Balthasar, on the left of the picture, bearing embalming myrrh, another reference to the Crucifixion.
Given, like Caspar, a face that feels like someone one might meet any day, he is a focal point. His toes swathed in fine leather point right out of the picture at us while an eye-catching mutt gnaws on a bone. This dog, copied from the artist Martin Schongauer, of Alsace, is the lively counterpart to a second hound, which pins down the bottom right of the picture.
This elegant pet, being copied from Dürer, may partly account for the Adoration’s misattribution at one stage.
That Gossaert was particularly pleased with this group is suggested by his signing his name (as ‘Gossart’) not only on the headgear of the black king who is also inscribed ‘BALTAZAR’, but also on the collar of his servant.
The National Gallery, hobbled like so many museums and galleries by the stop-go of Covid-19, reopens with renewed enthusiasm for attracting wider audiences. It has commissioned poet Theresa Lola to articulate the complex scene by giving voice to Balthasar in Looking at the Revival.
It is traditional to portray Balthasar as a black king. The Balthasar clad mostly in white who looks out at us in Vincenzo Foppa’s Adoration of c1490, also in the National Gallery, has an ambiguously melancholic gaze.
He directs us to the baby with his pointing right hand. Perhaps he has seen the child’s future. In some pictures of this time, there may be an element of triumphalism over Islam in the traditional portrayal of Balthasar as a black king.
Gossaert’s Adoration has too much humanity and dignity for that.
The picture is packed with affectionate vignettes – the woman who peers through a window behind Balthasar’s group, the child’s toying with one gold coin, the cavalcade still picking its way down the distant hillside, the angel in green bearing the important legend ‘Gloria:in:excelsis:deo’ (Glory to God in the highest) turning to their rainbow-winged companion with the apprehension of an apprentice turning to an old hand.
Gossaert himself seems to have done without assistants in completing this minutely detailed masterpiece, which may have taken as long as eight years to complete. It is more complex by far, for example, than his countryman Gerard David’s roughly contemporary painting on the same theme, even though David was at one stage thought to have had a hand in Gossaert’s Adoration.
The National Gallery calculates that the average time spent looking at any picture in its collection is 15 seconds. Here is a chance to Jan Gossaert’s The Adoration of the Kings a second glance.
Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’ is in Room One of the National Gallery, London, until February 28 – though currently suspended.