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The Three Kings in Art

January 6, 2013


I hope someone has put these three letters above the main door of your home in chalk today, to confer blessings on the occupants for the New Year – that’s the tradition we stick to in the country I come from. These symbols represent the Three Wise Men or the Three Kings: Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, although they can be also be desciphered as “Christus mansionem benedicat” (“May/Let Christ Bless This House”).

The story of the Three Wise Men of the East has been popular among Christians for many centuries, although only one (the Gospel of Matthew) of the four Canonical Gospels in the Bible mentions the story. It states that they came “from the east” to worship the Christ, “born King of the Jews”. Although the account does not tell how many of the men there were, the three gifts ( gold, frankincense, and myrrh) led to a widespread assumption that they were three as well. Their identification as kings in later Christian writings is probably linked to Psalms 72:11 as it is said – “May all kings fall down before him”.

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The Adoration of the Magi (Latin plural of magus) or the Three Kings has always been a popular topic in Art.  It can be found in many forms throughout our history. For e.g. in Byzantine art the Three Kings are depicted as Persians, wearing trousers and phrygian caps, crowns appear only from the 10th century. Medieval artists allegorised the theme to represent the three ages of man and in the beginning in the 12th century, and very often by the 15th, in Western art, especially in Northern Europe, the Kings represent the three parts of the known (pre-Columbian) world – Balthasar is thus represented as a young African and Caspar may be depicted with distinctly Oriental features.

A few stunning 16th century paintings that can be seen in some museums/galleries across Europe:

Pieter Bruegel the Elder ca. 1520 – 1569The Adoration of the Magi (London), oil on canvas (112 × 84 cm) — 1564

Pieter Bruegel the Elder ca. 1520 – 1569
The Adoration of the Magi (London), oil on canvas (112 × 84 cm) — 1564

You can see this painting in the National Gallery, London.

Pieter Bruegel the Elder – South-Netherlandish painter and father of Jan Bruegel. His contemporaries dub him ‘Boeren-Bruegel’ (Farmers-Bruegel) for his skilful sketches of country-life, a nickname that does not do justice to either his work or his talent. In addition to the famed Wedding and Kermis paintings, Bruegel creates landscapes, devout works and impressions of Hell in a confident and expressive style with great flair for composition and space.

Pieter Aertsen (1507/08 – 1575) Adoration of the Magi, oil on panel (168 × 179 cm) — c. 1560

Pieter Aertsen (1507/08 – 1575) Adoration of the Magi, oil on panel (168 × 179 cm) — c. 1560

This is the central panel of a triptych that can be seen in Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. The figures are arranged in a triangular manner. All of them look at the child, which helps the spectator to find the main subject. Research has shown that parts were sawn off at the top, right and bottom. Obviously the panel used to be larger.

Pieter Aertsen – Dutch painter. Lived and died in Amsterdam. Worked in Antwerp for some length of time, presumably between 1535 and 1555. Painter of historical pieces and still-lives, usually imbued with religious ethic. Creator of altarpieces. Known for his kitchen pieces: tableaux of vegetables and fruit, game and birds set in a kitchen.

Albrecht Dürer 1471 – 1528 The Adoration of the Magi, oil on panel (100 × 114 cm) — 1504-05

Albrecht Dürer 1471 – 1528
The Adoration of the Magi, oil on panel (100 × 114 cm) — 1504-05

Dürer’s Adoration was an altar-piece, commissioned by Friedrich III for the Schlosskirche at Wittenberg. (This king, who came to be known as Frederick the Wise, later acted as patron to Martin Luther.) You can see this panel in Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence.

Albrecht Dürer – German engraver and painter whose fame and influence reach far beyond national borders. Famous for his graphic work; his engravings and woodcuts.

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Images for this post came from Art and the Bible website –

Information for this post was found on Wikipedia and Art and the Bible.

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