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A closer look at "Adoration of the Magi"

When looking at Gentile da Fabriano’s "Adoration of the Magi", imagine yourself in front of it. In front of an altar in a dark sacristy, watching flickering candlelight dance on layers of silver, gold and paint that have been molded, etched, and glazed into glittering textures.

"Adoration of the Magi" by Gentile da Fabriano (c. 1423)

The Florentine Republic was a medieval and early modern state. It had no kings, rather, it was ruled by a wealthy class of merchants and the guilds. Their enormous accumulation of wealth soon appeared in art. The “Adoration of the Magi” by Gentile da Fabriano spells one such accumulation through its extravagant opulence.

The style of this marvellous painting, the "Adoration of the Magi" by Gentile da Fabriano, is defined International Gothic. The period when International Gothic flourished can be placed between the end of 14th, beginning of 15th century. Gentile da Fabriano, an artist coming from the Italian Region called Marche. travelled a lot during his life and, once in Florence, Palla Strozzi, a rich Florentine banker, asked him to paint this superb work of art for his private chapel in the Church of Santa Trinita. In this wonderful painting we can perceive the typical atmosphere of the International Gothic: the large use of gold and the fairy-tale like setting of the episode from the Bible.

The subject is about the famous Three Kings. Bearing gifts they traversed through distant lands in order to honour and adore the newly born Christ Child. Their adventure begins in the background. Very inventively the artist characterizes their journey as a continuous narrative through the gilded Gothic arches.

The first scene decorating the first arch depicts the discovery of the bright star in the East. The brightness of the star illuminated their hearts as they set out for Jerusalem. This is illustrated in the second scene. However, there they encounter the villain. Herod, the paranoid and treacherous king, asked them to report back once they find the Messiah. From there the Magi lead their retinue to the small town of Bethlehem as displayed at the upper right corner.

The extraordinary star shepherded them to the stable. The stupefied scene they encountered is witnessed by the viewer in the foreground of the painting. As the haloed and resplendent Christ Child greets the kings, they take turns offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Portrayed as emissaries, each Magus is accompanied by an entourage of pages and courtiers on horses. So great is the crowd that the figures appear stacked one on top of the other as if poised on a slope.

Flooded with details, the painting boasts of a rich narrative.

Notice the attendants behind Mary as they curiously examine the first gift. Or in the right foreground, observe the royal dog that looks precariously up at the horse who is about to carelessly step onto him. Indeed intriguing are the gold anklet spurs of the third king being taken off by a squire as the Magus prepares to approach the Christ Child.

In the midst of the bustling crowd the artist has sketched the painting’s patron, Palla Strozzi. He is represented as a Magi’s courtier. His jeweled hands hold a falcon, a symbolic reference to the legacy of the Strozzi family, since the word strozzieri was a Tuscan term for “falconer.” Reminiscent of the Strozzi coat of arms, little crescents are seen decorating the horse’s bridle as well.

The background beams with stories as well. The chronicles include that of a traveler accosted by thieves; a riding leopard waiting in anticipation to ambush a local deer and a chained cheetah hoping to devour two exotic belligerent birds. Beautiful pomegranate and olive trees decorate the winding ways. While the pomegranate symbolizes unity and the Church, olives stand for peace and prosperity.

The "Adoration of the Magi" theme was common since it allowed to hint at the economic prosperity and cultural superiority of who commissioned the work. The procession of the Magi fills the whole composition and is a chance to flaunt plushy clothes and golden decorations. Behind the three Magi we can recognize the portrait of Palla Strozzi in the man with the falcon.

The sumptuous clothes of the characters, the refined harnesses of the horses, the description of the landscape and the even more magnificent carved wood frame make this work a veritable masterpiece.



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