“Adoration of the Magi”
Leonardo da Vinci
Oil on wood
97 in x 96 in
Uffizi Gallery, Florence
Leonardo da Vinci was born in 1452 in Vinci, Italy to a landowner and a peasant girl. He began studying art at the age of 14 under the artist Verrocchio, and by the time he was 20 he had begun taking commissions from wealthy clients. In addition to his amazing artwork, Leonardo was an inventor and experimenter – he did not see a divide between science and art, and therefore considered the two to be linked, as can be seen in much of his art. He died in 1519 from old age.
Adoration of the Magi is one of da Vinci’s earlier paintings, and was completed in the year 1481. He was commissioned by monks of San Donato a Scopeto in Florence to create the oil on wood painting, but didn’t complete the painting himself as a result of his leaving to Milan in the middle of the painting. The commission was then given to Domenico Ghirlandaio, and the final altarpiece was painted by Filippino Lippi.
A great deal of the elements of style that make up this painting were influenced by artist Rogier van de Weyden’s Entombment of Christ completed in the 1450 – the high horizon, triangular shape of Mary and the Magi, and deep background are all copied from van der Weyden’s work. This piece therefore holds a great deal of High Renaissance aspects, specifically in the use of light. Da Vinci expertly used chiaroscuro in this painting, making Mary and baby Jesus much lighter than the people and animals in the background. This use of light v. dark allows the audience to focus on Jesus, who is in the center of the painting. The dark shades also increase as a figure is closer to the ground, possibly indicating the darkness of the underworld.
The whole background is symbolic of the coming age of Christianity and Christ’s victory over death. The ruins in the back left are a possible reference to the Basilica of Maxentius, which was said to have stood until a virgin gave birth and then supposedly collapsed on the night of Christ’s birth. The knights on horses act as an allusion to the decline of paganism and the victory of Jesus over the devil. The palm tree in the center is symbolic of the Virgin Mary due to the phrase from Songs of Solomon that describes Mary “stately as a palm tree”. The larger tree in front of the palm tree is symbolic of the tree of life. The young shepherd boy on the far right is believed to be a self-portrait of Leonardo, and is the only ever young portrait da Vinci painted of himself.
At first glance da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi is overwhelming to look at because of the many figures and chaos, but after understanding the meaning behind da Vinci’s work I see the beauty in the message of this painting. As a viewer, I saw that despite the chaos and destruction that comes with the victory of Christianity there is also a sense of peace and gentleness that Jesus provides us as well. One of my favorite aspects of the painting is the fact that the Magi are positioned differently than normal — most depictions of the three wise men show them lined up facing baby Jesus, but this piece of work has all three Magi’s kneeling down around Mary and baby, showing their equality.
V. Schmidt (ed), Italy and the Low Countries: artistic relations: the fifteenth century (Florence, 1999), pp. 49-51