Bosch, The Adoration of the Magi

The Wise Men pay homage to the King of Peace.

Why are there four of them? Four richly dressed men, one hurriedly covering his nakedness but wearing his crown. I love the tassel on Balthazar’s sleeve, and the embroidery. His page looks at the naked man, not the Baby. Here’s Mary, calm and regal.

Above them, there is the star, and a far city with a windmill and fantastic towers.

The side panels have some lovely details: the people in the fields have no idea of the rich gifts, or they’d be over for a gawp. A man in a woman’s headdress tries to dry nappies before a fire. The smell of smoke might mask the smell of Jesus-poo. St Peter escorts a donor, portrayed in piety, identified by his coat of arms and motto “One for all”. How strange, to buy your way into Heaven!

The fleur de lys identifies a female donor and her same-named saint Agnes. A wolf menaces a woman, and a bear engulfs a man. At least the sheep is peaceful. I wonder what those long spoons are for.

When the triptych is closed, the faded outside shows Christ crucified, and a devil taking Judas’ soul to Hell.

Here is the whole.

5 thoughts on “Bosch, The Adoration of the Magi

  1. Thanks for this. I am not good at noticing the telling details in paintings usually so this was fascinating.
    Is it my imagination or are depictions of Balthazar from that period often quite feminine?


    • Welcome. Thank you for commenting.

      I had not noticed. There is his earring; used to priests in copes, I don’t find his clothes feminine; I think it’s the look of wonder, and gentleness in contemplating the baby, which might look feminine even in Caspar (in blue) despite his beard. Here’s Pieter Bruegel’s. What do you think?


      • I think it may be my imagination. The earring we are also used to from the early moderns. Perhaps it’s the absence of beard contrasted with the general beardiness in depictions of the Magi from that period. I also had not appreciated until now (following a scurry round Wikipedia) that they conventionally represent the three ages of man and it looks like Balthazar often gets youth, so maybe clean shaven and young is more likely to be read as feminine? (By me) Not in every case – although in your Breughel he seems ambiguous to me, – quite a bulky figure but a somewhat vulnerable expression. Balthazar is also often bringing up the rear – a marginalized figure? Which perhaps codes him for the viewer nearer to the female in the period?


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