Here we are in December, so let’s go visit a few museums, looking for Wise Men, and for the spirit of the season.
First, a stop at the wonderful Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Here, above, is a panel from the V&A collection, Adoration of the Magi, made in Faenza, Italy, circa 1490-1500.
This is quite a small piece (about 24″ x 16″, and about 6″ deep) and I think it attracted me because there was something “rughooking-primitive” about the portrayal, and of course because of the deep, rich colors used. And the perspective of the figures, sheltering in the grotto (cave), with the landscape above, made it an intriguing composition.
It is described as “modelled in high relief in a recessed frame, and painted in blue, orange, manganese purple and copper green. The three kings are on the left, while on the right is St. Joseph and the seated Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus on her lap. The figures are depicted in a grotto, and above it, a landscape with a tree. Techniques: Tin-glazed earthenware painted with rich colors.”
Just to give you a better look at the depth of the relief, here is a sideways view of the panel:
After that colorful version, let’s stop at the Rejksmuseum in Amsterdam to look at an engraving of Adoration of the Magi, by Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius, a century later (about 1598-1600):
Interesting because it is unfinished, yes, but also because it is so personal – the focus here is not the entire manger scene with a small crowd of people and animals, but the emotions on four faces, as they gaze upon the still-missing Christ child by candlelight.
And when you look at the fine lines of an engraving, you can see so clearly how the lines and crosshatching create dark, medium and light areas, and how the direction of the lines and curves create the folds in the clothing, the shape of the fingers, the curls in the hair. Here is a close-up for you:
And here is one more, and very different, Adoration of the Magi, by Pieter Brueghel II, (Dutch, 1590-1638), also from the Rejksmuseum:
Now this is almost the opposite of the Goltzius etching – here the entire town is portrayed, and the nativity scene is almost completely hidden in the bottom left corner. And the more I looked at this, the more I liked this odd composition – for as this holiest of events was happening, only a few were aware of it at all, and the majority of people were going about their daily business, completely unaware. There may have been Wise Men bearing gifts, but in no version of the Christian Nativity story were there a lot of them.
The run-up to Christmas can be rushed, but we only are given a set number of Christmases in our lives, so do your best to make all of your preparations – whether making cookies, hooking an ornament, buying gifts, or finishing the tree – mindful and joyful.