The Adoration of the Magi


Peter Paul Rubens
Siegen 1577 - Antwerp 1640
oil on panel
447 x 336 cm
Inventory number 298

A colourful procession enters the ruins of an ancient structure. On the right, Mary presents her son to the three magi, who are accompanied by servants, soldiers, horses and camels. She is not central to the composition, yet she attracts the viewer's attention, because the magi and their companions are all facing her. Gaspar kneels and offers frankincense. Melchior, the old man in red, gives gold. And the Moorish King Balthasar, in a turban, has brought myrrh. The three men represent the lands and races who knew of the birth of the Messiah. With their gifts, they honour Jesus as a human and a lord, and as God.
After a long period abroad, Peter Paul Rubens returned to Antwerp in the early 17th century. He would become one of the most celebrated and successful artists of his era. In the 1620s, he received several commissions for large series of works and prestigious altarpieces. The Adoration of the Magi was commissioned by Matthias Yrsselius, the abbot of the Abbey of St Michael in Antwerp.


The painting has a complex symbolic programme. The ancient pillar refers to the ravaged palace of David. According to the bible, it was from his bloodline that the Messiah was born. The ox stands for faith. Attentive viewers may have noticed the spider in its web in the top right of the composition; it symbolises evil, which Jesus, in his capacity as the Saviour, will overcome.

In 2008, this painting was the focus of an extensive study by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.

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