Close looking: The Adoration of the Kings

I’ve stood in front of this painting many times marvelling at new details that emerge from each moment of close looking, and while Gossaert is not as well know as other Netherlandish painters of the 15th and 16th centuries, he is worthy of your time. The painting contains many stylistic references to other works of art and suggests both a method of making, and how the painting would have been viewed by the patron.

Jan Gossaert, (1478–1532), The Adoration of the Kings, c.1510–15, oil on oak panel, (179.8 × 163.2 cm), The National Gallery

The Adoration of the Kings, c.1510–15, (Figure 1), is an altarpiece by the Netherlandish artist Jan Gossaert (1478–1532) which was painted while he was in the service of the humanist educated Philip of Burgundy (1464–1524). The artwork depicts a familiar narrative of Christian beliefs, the Epiphany, the moment in the gospel of Matthew (2:11) when the Magi see God, incarnate as Jesus Christ, and pay homage by offering gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. What is more, this biblical event fulfils various Judaic prophecies, for example, Micah 5:2, but also Gentile predictions of a new covenant, not just for Israel but for all peoples of the world. Hence, Matthew 2:1, ‘they came from the east’, tells the reader the Magi were foreign, of nations other than Israel (The Holy Bible, 1995). This would indicate why depictions of this narrative often showed one of the Magi as a darker-skinned man as depicted by Gossaert in this work. Dunkerton, et al, (1999) state that while there were many original interpretations of this and other biblical narratives, the use of character, costume and light for a theatrical depiction of this scene would have mattered little as long as the essential nature of the message remained intact. Jones, (2011), notes that a commission of this particular narrative would have given Gossaert an opportunity to display a broad range of skills, from composition, such as the arrangement of groups of figures in a ‘deep architectural space’ as well as the fastidious and detailed rendering of textures for architectural detail, not to mention the rich brocades, furs and golden cloth worn by the Magi. Close looking of this artwork is rewarding and will show further instances of a wider biblical narrative including a range of religious symbolism. It is therefore important to understand this symbolism to fully appreciate the painting and to understand how this artwork would have fulfilled the viewing needs of the patron. Additionally, close looking with a wider understanding of art production of the early sixteenth century will also reveal that Gossaert has quoted works by other artists in the making of this masterwork. This article will therefore consider the stylistic references to other artists and religious symbolism in Gossaert’s The Adoration of the Kings altarpiece, what they indicate about the way the work was made, and how it might have been viewed by the patron.

The Adoration of the Kings is believed to have been painted specifically for the chapel of Our Lady, within the church of Sint-Adriaansabdij, a Benedictine monastery located in Geraardsbergen. Two patrons for the commissioning of the artwork have been suggested. The first is Joannes de Broeder who was consecrated Abbot of the monastery in 1506, holding this position until his death in 1526. Campbell, 2010 states that there is a possibility that de Broeder met Phillip of Burgundy, Gossaert’s patron, while in Ghent at the invitation of Phillip’s cousin, Margaret of Austria to celebrate a divine mass. Additionally, Campbell notes that Ruteau, writing in 1637, states that de Broeder ‘restored the crypt behind the choir and built there a fine chapel dedicated to the Virgin’ — the same chapel for which The Adoration of the Kings was painted and where de Broeder is interred. Furthermore, it is noted that the Abbey held additional paintings by Gossaert, now lost, so it is not inconceivable that Gossaert worked at the Abbey while in the service of Phillip of Burgundy (Ruteau, 1637, in Campbell, 2010). Dunkerton, et al., (1999), have stated, as proposed in academic discourse, that the kneeling Caspar may be a depiction of de Broeder. Little else is known of de Broeder and for a time, with no other credible candidates for patron of this work, many art historians believed that de Broeder was the most likely candidate for the commissioning of The Adoration of the Kings. In 2010, Lorne Campbell, in an article published in The Burlington Magazine (Campbell, 2010), argued that Daniel van Boechout, Lord of Boelare (c.1455-c.1527) was the more likely candidate as patron of Gossaert for the commissioning of The Adoration of the Kings for the chapel of Our Lady due to the amount of evidence available to support his assertion, not the least of which were van Boechout’s connections to Phillip of Burgundy, perhaps initially through David of Burgundy, Phillip’s half-brother. Campbell, 2010, further notes that it was David of Burgundy who certified the transfer of deeds of property and titles from van Boechout’s widowed mother, to van Boechout. Additionally, it is noted that in 1496 the year of David of Burgundy’s death, van Boechout was his castellan (governor of his castle and surrounding territories) and went on to become castellan for Phillip of Burgundy and remained in his employment until Phillip’s death in 1524 (Matthaeus 1738, vol. I; Sterk 1980, in Campbell, 2010). A will dated 12 April 1518, written during the time of his employment within the court of Phillip of Burgundy, made agreement with de Broeder for van Boechout and his wife to be buried in the chapel of Our Lady where their tombs are still visible today (van Bockstaele 2002, in Campbell, 2010). Campbell further proposes that van Boechout may have contributed to the cost of the development of the chapel and notes that documents exist showing it was known as Daniel van Boechout’s chapel (De Béthune 1897–1900, in Campbell, 2010). With the evidence of contact between Phillip of Burgundy and Daniel van Boechout established, a robust conjecture would be that both Gossaert and van Boechout were acquainted. Gossaert had lodgings across Phillip’s numerous residences and with van Boechout’s role as castellan to Philip of Burgundy it is highly likely the two men knew each other well (Campbell, 2010). Furthermore, as Ainsworth, (2010) points out Gossaert produced several paintings that were commissioned by persons with close association to the court of Phillip of Burgundy. It is therefore a highly probable supposition that Daniel van Boechout, Lord of Boelare is the patron of Gossaert’s The Adoration of the Kings as well as other works by Gossaert for the Benedictine Abbey.

The patron’s requirements as viewer considered
In addition to the development of the chapel, furnishing it for use would be the next probable task for van Boechout. The patron’s requirements for an altarpiece in his name would be similar to other wealthy contemporary patrons of similar works, such as considerations of subject matter, size and placement, as well as acknowledgement for one’s beneficence. However, to assure the patron’s commission was seen as worthy he would need a prominent artist and one of at least equal status as the artists commissioned by other contemporary courtiers. Furthermore, the patron would have specific requirements and want to demonstrate his education, his understanding of liturgical practice as well as his humanistic thinking and taste for art (Norman, 2007). As a viewer he would need to consider the artwork as suitable for his social rank and moreover, given the potential importance of the chapel to van Boechout as a financial endeavour it would have been important for the artwork to support his aims as a wealthy but pious benefactor to the abbey.

A patron’s expectations for commissioning a work of art
The size of the altarpiece is significant — The Adoration of the Kings is a large work (179.8 x 163.2 cm) and would have been designed for both distant and relatively close viewing by the patron along with a wider viewing public who would have recognised van Boechout’s generosity, and perhaps included prayers of petition for him during daily mass. To understand the impact of a work of art, and in particular how they were interpreted by contemporary viewers, it is important to understand the history of how artworks came to be commissioned and by whom, as well as the significance of the intended location and the subject matter. This is key to reading an artwork as the social and religious functions of art, commonplace during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, are not always apparent to today’s viewing public. Furthermore, it is critically important to understand the pervasive role of religion and the centrality of religious images to everyday life to understand the art and the viewing habits of a contemporary viewer. It can be argued that the commissioning of The Adoration of the Kings altarpiece served a dual purpose, to serve as a locus for Catholic mass in a sacred setting (Norman, 2007; Welch, 2000), and to serve as a reminder of van Boechout’s generosity so as to keep him in the minds of the viewer and thus help him move through the afterlife (Richardson, 2007). This is another key point in the consideration of the contemporary viewer as it provides an insight into Renaissance thoughts on death and the potential possible ways to earn heavenly salvation. At this time, pre-reformation, purgatory was a place no one could avoid but were able to reduce ones’ time spent there by living a good life and performing charitable deeds. Commissions for religious artwork or funding religious works was an accepted practice of charity in the belief that such acts of benevolence would shorten ones’ time in purgatory, especially when that act supported the spiritual needs of others. Additionally, Richardson, 2007, notes, that it was believed that to be forgotten in death ‘was to be left forever in a state of limbo’. This lends further weight to van Boechout’s intention as patron/viewer. Richardson, 2007 further notes that some works of art were commissioned ‘with death in mind’ and this may be so for van Boechout due to the timings of the development of the chapel, the date of his will and the commissioning of the artwork from Gossaert.

The subject depicted would have been an important concern for both van Boechout and de Broeder as it would be the focus of devotion. Woods, (2007), notes that there were a variety of influences that needed to be taken in to account, not just the expectations of the patron but what was considered appropriate for a location, and indeed a need to push for innovation in style and technical virtuosity to compete with known altarpieces. A suitable commission for the chapel of Our Lady would place emphasis on the Virgin — The Adoration of the Kings, which shows the Holy Family would have been a fitting narrative. How the specific narrative in which the Virgin and Child were placed was agreed is unknown, although it was a becoming a more conventional subject for altarpieces within chapels dedicated to the Virgin towards the end of the quattrocento. Furthermore, it was increasing common for painters to focus on the depiction of space, providing new possibilities for the portrayal of religious subjects (Dunkerton, et al., 1991). Conjectures about the choice of composition for the narrative depicted are many, for example, it could have been a particular request from the patron who may have seen something that appealed to him and requested a similar altarpiece. Gossaert leans heavily on the Adoration of the Magi (c.1470) by Hugo van der Goes (1440–1482), (Figure 2), for his composition of The Adoration of the Kings. Therefore, if he had access to the painting, it could be supposed that van Boechout had similar access and was able to reference as such to Gossaert. Little is known of the whereabouts of van der Goes’ Adoration of the Magi before it was recorded in the monastery of Monforte de Lemos in northern Spain in the late sixteenth century, other than that it was painted in Ghent for a Florentine chapel (Koster, 2008). Indeed, Gossaert could have seen this painting in Florence on his journey to Rome with Philip of Burgundy. Additional references to Dürer and Schongauer are also included in the composition, but again we have no way of knowing if these references were discussed with the patron or included by Gossaert to support his overall vision for the artwork. The references Gossaert makes to another artist’s work will be discussed later in this essay. What is worth further consideration are the range of symbolic references included in the composition — a man of some religious learning would have had to supply the ‘script’ for Gossaert to work to as they suggest a deep understanding of liturgical practice in addition to Judaic events considered as precursors to Christ’s birth and own sacrifice (Finaldi, 2018; Bernis, n.d.). Including elements such as these within the altarpiece’s composition may have been a specific request from van Boechout as patron/viewer to further reinforce his position as a pious benefactor. Additionally, as a viewer of the work with a full understanding of the meaning would have provided van Boechout with a far richer viewing experience.

Choosing Gossaert
To ensure van Boechout’s altarpiece commission was laudable he would need a prominent and talented artist. Gossaert, who’s fame had risen since his return from Rome was a suitable and accessible choice for the following reasons — as court artist to Philip of Burgundy he had status above other local artists and he had been commissioned for works of art for other courtiers. Gossaert, had quite literally made a name for himself by signing all his works from the beginning of his career, creating a solid advertisement for his achievements (Ainsworth, 2010). Additionally, van Boechout was in a position to request Gossaert’s services through Philip of Burgundy.

Establishing the subject matter, the making of meaning
Though de Broeder has been previously considered as a potential patron of this work it is worth considering that due to his proven connection to van Boechout, he may have acted as advisor in the development of the liturgical elements within the artwork, providing key ideas to support the rich symbolism. Although some sixty years before this event, an example of this type of collaboration can be found in the contract between patron priest Jean de Monagnac (n.d.) and the painter Enguerrand Quarton (1410–66) for the commissioning of Coronation of the Virgin altarpiece, (1452–53), (Figure 3). de Monagnac exhibits a deep knowledge of theology, including the saints and their attributes as well as the cult of Mary, and there is no reason to believe de Broeder would not be able to provide the same. The only potential flaw to this argument is that de Monagnac only exhibited theological knowledge to support the New Testament message — no Judaic or Old Testament references were included. A further point to make is that de Monagnac notes that Quarton ‘will be governed by his conscience’ in his depiction of the Trinity and the Virgin, suggesting the overall interpretation and development of the composition was left up to the artist (Holt, 1957, in Richardson, et al., 2007). Assuming Gossaert would have been given equal leeway, de Broeder would have been able to suggest the particular elements to include such as Christ holding the gold coin from the ciborium presented by Casper to represent the Eucharistic mass, symbolism that both represents the kingly nature of Christ through the gift of gold, but also Christ’s sacrifice, to die for the sins of man. The way Balthasar presents his gift of frankincense in the white drapery from around his neck is further reference to the Eucharist; it resembles a corporal used to protect any particles of the transfigured Blood and Body of Christ from spilling onto the altar cloth, it also suggests the shroud used for Christ’s body after his sacrifice on the cross. The Judaic, symbolic references depicted are Abraham and the sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22) which is considered a prophetic prefiguration of Christ’s sacrifice, and also with Moses, receiving the tablets from God (the second covenant), (Exodus 32:15) depicted in Casper’s discarded staff. The birth of Christ is considered as the start of New Covenant (Jeremiah 31:31–41), so laying the staff down in front of Christ is a symbolic message, signalling the start of a new era. Moreover, classicised ruins in which this scene is set were considered to depict the past, the end of the second covenant and the beginning of the new, and as such Christianity’s triumph.

Portraying the patron’s concerns to the viewer
The picture space is divided into equal halves along the horizon line and it is on the horizon line that Gossaert has chosen to place the eyes of the Virgin, firmly grounding her in the bottom half of the picture plane. This is the earthly realm and it is within this that the main subject matter of the painting is placed; this placement is key in the story of the Epiphany as God, made man, is earth-bound and is the reason that the Magi have come from the East to pay their respects. The top half of the painting shows the heavenly realm with nine angels heralding the birth of Christ. The middle angel of the group of three closest to the picture plane holds a banner with the words ‘Gloria in excelsis deo’ inscribed on it, possibly as a reference to a choir of angels. The light of God is shown at the topmost of the painting, and visible through the ruins projecting up from the earthly realm is the Holy Spirit, represented by the white dove. A vertical line drawn down from the light of God, through the dove, passes directly through the gold coin in Christ’s hand, and as mentioned the gold coin represents the Eucharist, the transubstantiation when the essence of bread and wine are converted to the Body and Blood of Christ. Gossaert has created a direct link from the heavenly to the earthly realm by depicting the central tenet of the Catholic faith — there is One God, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Through the uniqueness of this virtuoso composition the patron’s concerns as viewer would have been fulfilled, this is an altarpiece that superbly conveys the message and the meaning of the mass performed before it.

An alternative theory on angels
The nine angels depicted heralding the birth of Christ in The Adoration of the Kings perhaps represent the nine hierarchies of angels, which is made up of three choirs of three angels each, as depicted in Assumption of the Virgin, c.1475, ascribed to Francesco Botticini (1446–98), (Figure 4). Additionally, the three angels in the foreground of the painting could conceivably represent the first choir of angels whose role was to implement Divine ordinance and were appointed as Guardians of men (Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, n.d.; Alighieri, D. and Kirkpatrick, R, 2007;, 2019), however this has not been discussed hitherto in the art historical literature. Another point of consideration is the tenth angel peering out from the ruins, just above the Virgin’s left shoulder. In the Abrahamic tradition, a fallen angel is one expelled from heaven, so perhaps the angel who has secreted himself within the ruins is a representation of the fallen, as described in the apocryphal text of 1 Enoch (1–36) in which the fallen were called ‘watchers’ (Boccaccini, 2010; Marshall and Walsham, 2006). As previously discussed, there are references to events from Judaic scripture depicted in The Adoration of the Kings, which leads to the conclusion that the patron, or someone supporting the development of the composition, could conceivably have been conversant with these texts. Furthermore, the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (c.5th-6th century CE) provided Dante with the source material for his descriptions of the realms of heaven which are set out in The Divine Comedy (Divina Commedia). There is common agreement among some scholars that Dante’s influence paved the way for the rise of Renaissance humanism (Blauvelt, 2018; Prestwich, 2014; Online Library of Liberty, 2016). Perhaps further applicable evidence to this proposition is that c.1509–10 Philip of Burgundy solidified plans to create a humanist court and Sterk, 1980 in Ainsworth, 2010, places Gossaert firmly in Philip’s humanist courts at Souburg and Wijk by Duurstede. It was these humanist courts that Gossaert frequented during his tenure with Philip of Burgundy. He, and indeed van Boechout may have been exposed to the writings of Dante and used them to develop the composition of The Adoration of the Kings. Nevertheless, this too has not been discussed in the art historical literature for this work.

There is no evidence of Gossaert having a workshop during the time he worked on The Adoration of the Kings; it is believed he worked unaided, without assistants, which may go some way to explaining why the altarpiece took so long to finish. Ainsworth, 2010, states Gossaert worked with another painter, Gerard David, who painted the central Virgin figure in what she calls a ‘prestige collaboration’ during a working period in Bruges from 1510–15 (Ainsworth, 2010, p. 148). However, Campbell, 2010, disagrees with this theory believing there is more than enough evidence to suggest the work was created by Gossaert’s hand alone. He cites a near contemporary account by Geldenhouwer, court poet and humanist that states clearly that Gossaert remained within the court of Philip of Burgundy, producing an artwork for one of Phillip’s closest associates, Daniel van Boechout (Campbell, 2010). This seems a far more plausible scenario than Gossaert leaving secure employment within the Burgundian court.

Tradition and convention
The Adoration of the Kings is painted in oil on an oak panel that would have been made by specialist craftsmen. Due to the size of the work, multiple panels (6 in total) were joined together with butt joins, reinforced with dowel rods. The joined panels were then planed to create an even surface for the painter to prepare the panel for painting. Albrecht Dürer’s (1471–1528) shared correspondence about the preparation of a panel in which he describes the arduous process of preparing the panel for durability. Indeed, no panel without proper preparation would last well. Technical investigation of The Adoration of the Kings revealed that there was nothing unusual about the materials used in the making of the artwork and would have been common to any artist’s studio working in the Netherlandish tradition, (The National Gallery, 1997). The description of the preparation of the panel is an application of a standard white chalk bound with glue size that was then painted over with a priming layer, the purpose of which is assumed as limiting the absorbency of the chalk to allow for consistent drying of the applied oil paint. Gossaert made extensive underdrawings on the prepared panel, and it is noted that a range of drawing skills were employed, from free and florid lines to careful studies, as well as cross-hatching to indicate volume and areas of shadow, such as the folds in the robes of the angels. Additionally, various verticals, horizontals and orthogonals were incised into the ground to guide the develop of the architecture, the horizon line and the tiled flooring (ibid.). Considerable changes to the underdrawing are noted, and a suggestion for this could be an ongoing collaboration with the patron van Boechout and his advisor de Broeder in refining the composition throughout the process of drawing and painting to deliver the viewing experience van Boechout required.

Gossaert’s use of a highly realistic painting technique is typical for Netherlandish artists and an altarpiece of the size of The Adoration of the Kings would have been an ideal vehicle for Gossaert to show his full range of skills. A striking feature is the rendering of the cloth of the king’s clothes, especially the ermine-lined gold cape worn by Melchior, which could only be appreciated by close viewing. So high is the level of detail Gossaert was able to achieve in rendering the fabrics it is as though the individual stitches of the cloth are visible. From the perspective of van Boechout as viewer, this would have been what he was looking for in technical expertise due to the known output of Netherlandish painters he would have seen at court. During the process of painting this artwork, Gossaert made many changes and various elements that were not underdrawn nor reserved were added throughout the process, such as the animals normally associated with a nativity scene. Another notable change is the late addition of Casper’s sceptre. All these compositional developments suggest a continued collaboration with van Boechout and de Broeder (Campbell, 2010).

Gossaert’s main reference source is Adoration of the Maji, c.1470/75, by Hugo van der Goes, (1440–1482). Many parallels can be drawn between the two works in composition, particularly with the central characters and the architectural space in which they are placed, the daring part of this composition is the opening up of a deep recess in the middle of the painting to mountainous views in the distance. Gossaert has been able to create an extremely deep picture space in which he places Bethlehem in the distance as well as shepherds reacting to the heralding angels. Additionally, this deep space acts as a conduit between the light of God, the Holy Spirit and Christ, pulling the focus of the viewers eye in towards the horizon line where if crosses with a vertical line through the Trinity by the use of extremely well rendered aerial perspective. Additionally, the use of linear perspective further draws the viewer into the scene; the orthogonal lines that define the floor tiles cross the horizon line between the Virgin’s head and the shoulder of the shepherd leaning over the gate in the background of the recessed space. Gossaert uses his knowledge of ancient architecture well, creating a frieze and capitals showing dancing putti adding a further emphasis to the idea that ruins represent the past, and that the birth of Christ is the beginning of a new era. Also included on the top of a column in minute detail is the depiction of the story of the sacrifice of Isaac, previously discussed. Further references to the work of other artists include the dog in the left-hand foreground which is quoted from Albrecht Dürer’s etching of Saint Eustace (c.1501), (Figure 5). No evidence of tracing can be found through close examination and it is agreed that the underdrawing for the dog was done freehand. Gossaert’s handling of paint gives a very real sense of a quivering whippet (Campbell, 2010, p.375). Similarly, the same applies for the dog on the left-hand side, referenced from a work by Martin Schongauer (c.1448–91), Adoration of the Maji, (c.1475), (Figure 6). More of Schongauer’s work was used as reference for the depiction of Melchior, as well as the grouping of people around him and the rocky outcrop in the top half of the painting. Given that Gossaert did not have a workshop, he perhaps used these works of Schongauer and Dürer as another artist would have used kept drawings from ‘visual storecupboards’ (King, 2007).

In establishing Daniel van Boechout as the patron of this work through his connections to both the Burgundian court and Abbot Joannes de Broeder, a line of enquiry into the needs of van Boechout as patron/viewer was opened. The stylistic references to other artists provided a framework for Gossaert to work to, setting out a complex arrangement of actors within a dense and highly detailed narrative; to progress an idea with the patron for further development showed the stylistic references worked well, more than delivering what the patron/viewer, as a pious benefactor, required. In particular the horizon line and vertical line through the Trinity is a triumph as they pull the picture fully into the most sacred moment of the mass, the transubstantiation of the bread and wine to the Body and Blood of Christ. Furthermore, religious references and the Judaic symbolism suggest that this work was the product of continued collaboration between the patron, his agent, or both to develop out the meaning of the artwork, highlighting the Virgin’s role in setting the stage for the new covenant. Given the contemporary religious attitudes it must be recognised that the patron would have viewed this work with respect and reverence.

Figure 1
Jan Gossaert, (1478–1532), The Adoration of the Kings, c.1510–15, oil on oak panel, (179.8 × 163.2 cm), The National Gallery, London.

Figure 2
Hugo van der Goes, (1440–1482), Adoration of the Maji, c.1470/75, oil on oak panel (242.0 x 147.0 cm), Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin. Photo: ©, b p k — Photo Agency / Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin / Jörg P. Anders

Hugo van der Goes, (1440–1482), Adoration of the Maji, c.1470/75, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin.
Hugo van der Goes, (1440–1482), Adoration of the Maji, c.1470/75, Gemäldegalerie der Staatlichen Museen, Berlin.

Figure 3
Enguerrand Quarton, (1410–66), Coronation of the Virgin, c.1452–54, oil on panel, (183 x 220 cm), Musée de l’Hospice, Villeneuve-les-Avignon. Photo: © Public Licence

Figure 4
Ascribed to Francesco Botticini, (1446–97), The Assumption of the Virgin, c.1475, Tempera on wood, (228.6 x 377.2 cm), The National Gallery, London.

Figure 5
Albrecht Dürer, (1471–1528), Saint Eustace, c.1501, copperplate engraving on parchment, (35.1 x 25.6 cm), Royal Collection Trust, Windsor. Photo: © Royal Collection Trust

Figure 6
Martin Schongauer, (c.1448–91), Adoration of the Maji, c.1475, copperplate engraving on parchment, (25.6 x 16.8 cm), The Met Fifth Avenue, New York.


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Part-time art historian and writer. Full-time clairvoyant.