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Adoration of the Magi

Peter Paul Rubens
  • Object number 298
  • Date (1624)
  • Dimensions 447 x 336 cm
  • Medium Oil on panel
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Schilderij Aanbidding door de koningen van Peter Paul Rubens

Adoration of the Magi

Three kings have come from the East to greet the newborn Jesus. They’ve brought an entourage with them of servants, soldiers, horses and camels. The colourful procession enters the ruins of a palace. On the right you can see Mary, who shows her child proudly to the three wise men. She is not positioned in the middle of the painting, but is still the centre of attention. Everybody is looking in her direction.

Operatic altarpiece

Peter Paul Rubens presents the biblical scene here in the manner of an opera performance, with monumental characters and Baroque spaces. It was perfect for the altarpiece’s original location: the high altar in the church of St Michael’s Abbey in Antwerp. The church no longer exists.

The Turnip of Rubens

The famous Rubens painting also inspired the cartoonist Willy Vandersteen. The cross-looking Melchior – the king in the red robe – puts in an appearance in the ‘Spike and Suzy’ comic book The Turnip of Rubens. During a visit by our heroes to the KMSKA, the red king escapes from the painting and steals Lambik’s brass neck chain. The next day, the chain shows up in Rubens’ altarpiece. To retrieve it, Lambik has to travel back in history in a time machine.

Painting packed with symbolism

The Adoration of the Magi is a symbolically complex work. The classical column refers to the ruined palace of King David – an ancestor of the Messiah, according to the Bible. The ox is a symbol of faith. And what about the spider in its web in the upper right? It represents the evil that Jesus will defeat when he grows up.

Three kings, two weeks

It’s amazing how Rubens painted close up what the viewer has to see from a great distance. He is supposed to have finished the panel in just two weeks. That seems very fast, but it’s quite possible if you take account of the thin layers of paint and the rapid brushstrokes. Just look at the ox in the foreground. Rubens allows the key figures to communicate with each other via diagonal axes. And he based the characters’ expressions on previously painted head studies.

Rubens inspires Rembrandt

Rubens drew inspiration for the king standing in the middle of the scene from an old drawing of a man in Turkish costume. He had already borrowed the pose for a portrait of a Flemish merchant, and it can also be found in other paintings by him, including an Adoration of the Magi now in Lyons. That painting in turn inspired the young Rembrandt to paint several masterpieces with an Oriental feel.

Peter Paul Rubens

Rubens was one of the most celebrated and sought-after artists of his time. He received numerous commissions for large series and important altarpieces. He painted this Adoration of the Magi for Matthias Yrsselius, Abbot of St Michael’s Abbey in Antwerp.

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