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Adoration of the Magi

Jan Erasmus Quellinus

Artwork Details

Adoration of the Magi
Jan Erasmus Quellinus
oil on paper mounted on canvas
20 1/2 in. x 24 3/4 in. x 2 5/8 in. ( 52.07 cm x 62.87 cm x 6.67 cm )
Museum Purchase


In this unfinished painting, Jan Erasmus Quellinus depicts the three Magi (or Wise Men) paying homage to the infant Jesus, an episode mentioned briefly in the Christian Gospel of Matthew (2:11) and greatly embellished in art and legend  over the centuries. The Magi, represented as kings in accordance with the long-established tradition, present their gifts to Mary and Jesus on the steps of a grand building decorated with classical columns and pilasters. By the fifteenth century, the three Magi were seen to represent Africa, Asia, and Europe, the three continents of the Old World. Depictions of the Black magus in works like these came to symbolize the expansion of Christianity to remote and foreign lands. In the Dutch lowlands, the increased presence of people of African descent are evident in the portraits made by Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) and Rembrandt (1606–1669). Increasing depictions of the Black magus in European portraiture, coincided with Europe’s growing presence in the transatlantic slave trade. 

Subject Matter:

This painting depicts the three Magi who came to pay homage to the infant Christ, an episode mentioned only briefly in the Gospel of Matthew (2:11) but greatly embellished in art and legend over the centuries. Here the Magi, represented as kings in accord with long established tradition, appear on the steps of a grand building decorated with classical columns and pilasters. The foremost magus, the elderly Melchior, kneels before the Virgin and infant Christ, while Balthasar, sporting an exotic turban, stands behind him holding a smoking censer, a reference to the gifts of frankincense and myrrh given by the magi. The third magus, Caspar, stands at the bottom of the steps with his back toward the viewer.

Physical Description:

This unfinished painted study depicts a crowd of figures gathered around three richly dressed men and a woman and child, who appear on a flight of stairs near the entrance to a large building decorated with classical columns and pilasters. An elderly bald man wearing a red cloak trimmed with ermine kneels with his head bowed at the top of the stairs before a kneeling woman who holds an infant in her right arm. Another man wearing a turban decorated with a large feather stands behind the kneeling man and holds a gold censer hanging from a chain in his left hand. A third richly dressed man stands at the bottom of the stairs with his back turned toward the viewer. A number of other figures crowd around this central group from the sides. A large ox sits in the right foreground with a donkey standing behind it.

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