Exhibition: Peter Paul Rubens: The Three Magi Reunited @ The National Gallery, Washington DC, from 17th of March 2015- July 5th 2015 * Click on the Link Above for More Information!
Balthasar Moretus, a close childhood friend of Rubens, commissioned these paintings around 1618. Moretus and his two brothers were named after the Three Magi (Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar), thus these works had a special personal meaning for both the artist and his patron. Rubens executed these bust-length images with strong colors and vigorous brushstrokes that bring these biblical figures to life.
"At the time, the Adoration of the Magi was a common subject in art, but these intimate paintings take the kings out of their usual narrative setting," said Earl A. Powell III, director, National Gallery of Art. "Rubens conjured them as tangible flesh and blood believers."
About the Exhibition
The portraits of the old king (Gaspar), owned by the Museo de Arte de Ponce near San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the young king (Balthasar), from the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, were previously on view at the Museo de Arte de Ponce in Wise Men from East: The Magi Portraits by Rubens (November 3, 2014–March 9, 2015). The painting of the middle-aged king (Melchior) was given to the Gallery in 1943 as part of the Chester Dale Collection. As stipulated in the bequest, the work cannot travel or go on view in any other museum. Therefore, this exhibition marks a rare opportunity for visitors to see all three of Rubens' kings together again.
A Small Introduction
Around 1618 Peter Paul Rubens (1577–1640) portrayed the three Magi who visited the Christ child in a set of unusual, bust-length paintings for Balthasar Moretus the Elder (1574–1641), owner of the prestigious Plantin Press in Antwerp. With his characteristic bravura brushwork, Rubens vividly conjured these important biblical figures not simply as exotic kings of the distant past but as tangible flesh and blood believers. This exhibition, which reunites the paintings for the first time in 130 years, illuminates the special relationship between patron and artist, lifelong friends and artistic collaborators.
The subject of the Adoration of the Magi was meaningful to the deeply pious Rubens, who addressed the theme at least twelve times in painting, but even more so to his close friend Moretus, who felt a strong personal connection to the regal visitors. Like so many other citizens in Antwerp, Balthasar Moretus and his older brothers, Gaspar and Melchior, were named after the three kings—in the hope, according to their father, that they would “seek to do honor and glory to Him after the example of the Three Kings.” A trio of their paternal uncles also bore the names. The family affinity for the kings is also evident in the motto Balthasar took, stella duce (“with the star as guide”). He even incorporated the star of the Magi into printer’s marks for the Plantin Press, some of which were designed by Rubens. The small, close-up, portrait-like format of the three separate Magi paintings— which is perhaps without precedent—was thus well-suited for the private collection of Moretus, in whose home they could serve as objects of his personal devotion on a daily basis.
The Gospel of Matthew is the only gospel to mention the Magi, though it offers few details about them, not even their number. Biblical scholars speculated on their appearance and origins for years until eventually the Magi came to be regarded as three kings hailing from the three then-known continents: Europe, Asia, and Africa. They came to symbolize the three ages of man: youth, middle age, and old age. They were also given names: Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.
For 16th- and 17th-century residents of Antwerp, a harbor town and international center of commerce that imported luxury goods shipped from afar, the story of the Magi and their gifts took on a particular resonance. It was not unusual for residents to bear the names of the kings, as was the case with Balthasar Moretus and his two older brothers, as well as a trio of their paternal uncles. Moretus took his affinity for the kings further, incorporating the star of the Magi into printer's marks for the Plantin Press and adopting the Latin phrase stella duce ("with the star as guide") as his motto. Rubens, a deeply pious Catholic, movingly portrayed these regal visitors, who played an essential role in the manifestation of Christ to the world, in an unusual up-close format suited for the private contemplation of his close friend.
In Adoration of the Magi scenes, the oldest king usually kneels closest to the Christ child and offers gold. The most precious of the three gifts, gold is traditionally interpreted as symbolizing Jesus’s kingship. Rubens’s pensive, aged figure wears no crown, but his eminence radiates in the resplendence of both his gold brocade mantle ringed by soft fur and his costly gold scalloped dish filled with coins—tribute from one king to another.
The names traditionally assigned to each of Rubens’s paintings follow the order in which they were listed in Plantin Press account records, with the assumption that the oldest king probably would have been named first and the youngest last: Gaspar, Melchior, and Balthasar. Nevertheless, this identification is far from certain, especially given the interchangeability of the names in various accounts of the Magi throughout the centuries.
The Antwerp engraver Paulus Pontius made two sympathetic studies of this elderly man’s head in preparation for an engraving to be published in a compilation of prints after heads and figures by Rubens; such drawing books, as they are known, were intended to provide examples for artists to aid in the creation of compositions.
One of the Magi, possibly Gaspar (c. 1618, from the Museo de Arte de Ponce)
In most Adoration of the Magi scenes, the eldest king kneels closest to the Christ child offering gold, the most precious of the three gifts. Traditionally, this was interpreted as symbolizing Jesus' kingship. The pensive, aged figure in Rubens' portrait wears no crown, but his eminence radiates in the resplendence of both his gold brocade mantle ringed by soft fur and his costly gold scalloped dish filled with coins—a tribute from one king to another
The second king opens his vessel to reveal frankincense, an aromatic substance derived from the sap of Boswellia trees found in the Middle East, North Africa, and India. Biblical commentators interpreted the gift, which was burnt as incense in biblical times, as representing sacrifice, prayer, and the recognition of Christ’s divine majesty.
Rubens kept a number of studies of heads in his studio for use when composing paintings, a practice he may have known from an earlier Antwerp artist, Frans Floris, as well as artists he had met while in Italy. Whether originating from his imagination or made from life after models he posed in the studio, these character studies represented an array of types, from youth to old age, with varying expressions.
Rubens’s middle-aged king was based on one such study of a man in 17th-century dress, painted with an immediacy that suggests it was done from life. For Moretus’s king, the artist transformed the man from a specific contemporary model into an idealized historical figure by lengthening his hair, clothing him in a regal red robe, and softening the handling of flesh tone, wrinkles, and beard to give a more generalized effect.
One of the Magi, possibly Melchior (c. 1618, from the National Gallery of Art)
The middle-aged king opens his vessel to reveal frankincense, an aromatic substance derived from the sap of Boswellia trees found in the Middle East, North Africa, and India. Biblical commentators interpreted the gift as representative of sacrifice, prayer, and the recognition of the Christ child's divinity.
As early as the 10th century, biblical commentaries suggested that one of the Magi came from Africa. In art, however, the African king first appeared around the beginning of the 15th century, becoming nearly ubiquitous by the early 16th. He usually is portrayed as the youngest king and associated with the gift of myrrh.
An aromatic resin extracted from Cammiphora trees that grow in North Africa and the Middle East, myrrh is, like frankincense, burnt as incense. But more significantly for the story of the Magi, it was used in biblical times to anoint the dead, and thus seen as foreshadowing the death of Christ. Indeed, the Gospel of John reports that Jesus was buried with myrrh in accordance with Jewish burial customs. Rubens’s king opens the lid of a small chest that recalls a sarcophagus, revealing a glow of light that hints at Christ’s resurrection. The gift of myrrh thus proclaims the central tenet of Christianity: the mystery of Jesus’s death and resurrection and, therefore, his divinity.
Unlike the other two Magi paintings that Rubens painted for Moretus, this figure is not based on a life study but on an earlier work of art—a portrait of a Tunisian king. That 15th-century painting, executed by a Dutch artist who had visited Tunis, may have been in Rubens’s own collection; the artist made a copy of it that still exists. As was his practice, Rubens used the figure in other compositions: for example, as the African king in his Adoration of the Magi in the St. Janskerk in Mechelen (engraved by Lucas Vorsterman in 1620).
One of the Magi, possibly Balthasar (c. 1618, from the Plantin-Moretus Museum)
The African king is typically associated with the gift of myrrh, the aromatic resin used in embalming. Symbolically the presentation of this gift foreshadowed the death of Christ, a motif Rubens further exploited by encapsulating the myrrh in a small chest resembling a sarcophagus, from which a light emanates, alluding to the Resurrection. Rubens based the figure in this painting on his copy after a now-lost 16th-century portrait of a Tunisian king