The Adoration of the Kings by Jan Gossaert

The Adoration of the Kings by Jan Gossaert (c.1515)

I ended My Daily Art Display yesterday by promising you a feature on what I believed the best painting in the Gossaert exhibition at the National Gallery, London.  I was three quarters of the way around the exhibition when I entered a small room and hanging on one wall was the magnificent work of art by Gossaert entitled The Adoration of the Kings.  This oil on wood painting was completed around 1515 after his return from Rome.  It is a very large painting measuring 177cms x 161cms.  It is part of the National Gallery’s permanent collection.  It is one of Gossaert’s largest works of art It is truly breath-taking.  I stood in front of it for a full five minutes mesmerized much to the annoyance of my fellow visitors.  There was so much going on within the picture and thus so much to take in. 

The picture is thought to have been the altarpiece of the Lady Chapel of Saint Adrian’s,  Geraardsbergen (Grammont) a town near Brussels  The patron who commissioned the painting was thought to be Daniel van Boechout, the Lord of Boelare, a well-connected nobleman.  The many figures in the painting have rigidity about them and all are colourfully dressed.  The multitude of colours and tones are what strikes your eye when you first stand in front of the painting.  The rich fabrics of the very fashionable clothes are gloriously depicted.  The backdrop which we can see through the colonnades is laid out with tiny towers and steeples

Let us take a look at some of the detail.  There are approximately thirty figures depicted in this elaborate and highly colourful painting.  These are grouped within an ornate architectural structure which adds a sense of depth to the picture.   Gossaert was master of this type of presentation.  The once palatial buildings are now in ruins.  The stones and brickwork are  chipped and overgrown with plants and small trees.  The frieze above the Virgin bears a relief of naked dancing putti which also appears on four of the pillar capitals.  They probably represent the pleasures of innocence.   

Conversion of Saint Eustace by Durer


The floor is made up of slabs and coloured stones arranged in geometrical patterns but it is chipped and broken and weeds can be seen growing between the stones.  Two dogs have been added to the foreground.  Art historians believe that the dog in the right foreground is copied directly from Durer’s famous engraving of the miraculous conversion of Saint Eustace, dated 1500/01.

Baby Jesus with gold coin

Centrally positioned in the painting is the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus sitting on her knee.  Kneeling in front of them is the eldest king, Caspar, with a wart on his left cheek.  He is offering his gift, a gold chalice containing gold coins.  The baby with his hand outstretched takes one of the coins. The lid of the chalice which lies on the floor next to his hat and golden sceptre bears his name.   The second king, Melchior, stands behind Caspar.  He is dressed in a green patterned doublet over which is his gold patterned coat lined with ermine.  He carries the frankincense in a highly decorative golden container.  Behind him stand four attendants.   The third king is Balthasar, and this is one of the earliest known depictions of a black man in western art.   He approaches Mary from the left of the painting.  He carries a highly ornate vessel, which contains his gift of myrrh.  His elaborate hat which incorporates a crown is inscribed with his name, BALTAZAR, and also has on it the artist’s signature.  The artist’s signature also appears on the neck ornament of Balthazar’s black attendant.    

Gossaert himself ???

Behind him are his three attendants.  If we look at the middle-ground, just behind Mary, we can see Saint Joseph, dressed in a red robe, leaning on his staff.  To the right of him we can just make out the head of an ox which peers out of a doorway and if you look closely between the Virgin Mary and King Caspar you can just make out the ass munching on weeds. Between the ox and Saint Joseph we see two men looking over a dilapidated fence.  Some believe that the man on the left is Gossaert himself.   Above all these earthly beings hover nine angels all dressed in various coloured shot fabrics.  On the hillside behind Melchior’s retinue, we can just make out the angel announcing Christ’s birth to the shepherds

The colours Gossaert uses in this painting are so rich and varied and his attention to detail of every aspect of this picture gives the impression that the artist was trying to push his powers of invention and artistry to their very limits.  The painting shown above and any others I have come across in catalogues or on the internet do not give you any idea of the true beauty of this work of art and I urge you to try and visit the Gossaert exhibition even if it is just to stand in front of this painting and absorb the beauty of this sumptuously painted work of art.

I will leave you with not my words of praise for the artist but the words of the the person who is the curator of this exhibition.  Of the Gossaert exhibition she says:

“When I stand in a room full of his paintings, the sheer quality of the work is overwhelming.  His technique is extraordinary: the way he paints textures, so you feel every strand of fur, every hair. He is undoubtedly one of the giants.”

Finally, have a look at the website below where you can use the viewer to move around the painting and zoom in on all the details.