Velázquez’s Adoration of the Magi: A 17th-Century Version.

Velázquez’s Adoration of the Magi 1619.

Diego Velázquez’s Adoration of the Magi forms part of a long list of paintings dealing with one of the most popular topics in the Christian calendar: the visit paid by the three Wise Men (often known, too, as the three “Kings”) to the manger at Bethlehem.

Religious art was the most practiced form of painting during Spain’s Golden Age, in part because the Catholic Church, the monasteries and convents were wealthy and able to pay, and demand was high to adorn churches, especially in the recently conquered Kingdom of Granada (1492) and in the newly “discovered” lands in the Americas (Las Indias). In addition, the injunctions of the Catholic Council of Trent (a series of meetings held in Italy between 1545 and 1563 to counteract the doctrinal challenges and growing threat of Protestantism) called for art (and sculpture etc.) to arouse religious devotion in the faithful.

Painters were urged to encourage piety by drawing on biblical themes that would awaken compassion, especially the Immaculate Conception, the Madonna and Child, Christ’s Birth, His Passion (from the Garden of Gethsemane to the crucifixion) and the Pietà (Mary cradling the dead Jesus below the Cross). The Adoration of the Magi, celebrating Christ’s birth, falls within that mission.

Velázquez. Adoration of the Magi.

The Adoration … is a moderately sized canvas (203 x 125 cm./ 80 x 49 inches, 6 x 4 ft) probably commissioned for the Jesuit chapel of San Luis founded in 1609. It portrays a familiar moment in which the divine (the Baby Jesus in swaddling clothes) and the holy (Mary) have been brought down to earth in a way that the faithful could easily comprehend. Christ and Mary are not ethereal or idealised figures, but real personages dwelling among us. Jesus has a perky look on his face as he studies the Wise Man (or Kings) kneeling before him, and Mary, although demure, is no unrealistic, angelic Renaissance Madonna, often identified by her halo and the celestial forms (angels, cherubs) floating above her.

The figures attending Jesus and Mary are also realistic, with a touch of the exotic provided by the black king (generally conceded to be Balthasar) wearing a bright red cape, an intricate white collar, a earring, while holding a stylized crystal container (presumably bearing myrrh, according to tradition) in his left hand. Nevertheless, his clothes and those of the other figures are 17th-century garments which obey the directives of the Council of Trent that biblical topics should be made relevant to the faithful. 

The 17th-century clothing, then, is not an anachronism. It is a very real way of suggesting the contemporaneity/ immediacy, humanity and universality of a divine event that occurred in a faraway place and in the distant past. Christ’s birth is a message of optimism that defies time or place. He is a ray of hope against the darkness that spreads on the canvas behind him. This technique of chiaroscuro (contrast in which light falls on the main character(s) against a dark background), probably inspired by Caravaggio, is used for dramatic effect, and amazingly so by such a young artist.

Reinforcing this idea is the deliberately vague location of this inspirational event.  Popular tradition had it that the Kings paid homage to Jesus as he lay in a manger in a stable, but this is not supported by scripture. According to Matthew 2: 11 –where the episode of the three Wise Men is narrated– Jesus was a young child living in a house. Why then the confusion? For the answer, we have to turn to Luke, 2: 7-16 where we read that there were shepherds in the fields who, hearing the good news, hastened to see the Baby Jesus who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. In other words, the visit of the Wise Men has been conflated with the story of the shepherds. Velázquez removes avoids the confusion by removing any location identifier, and amplifies the possibility of the miracle

The message of hope conveyed by the birth of Jesus is nevertheless tempered by the subtly introduced thorns at the lower right of the canvas, the broken stone slab at Mary’s feet and the darkly outlined hill top between trees to the upper left of the picture, possibly suggesting Golgotha, the hill in Jerusalem on which Christ was crucified.

The realism with which the figures are painted has led many scholars to speculate that they are authentic, historic characters, including quite possibly a family portrait: Mary is Velázquez’s wife Juana, Christ an image of his recently born daughter and Velázquez himself the king kneeling directly before them. It has been further suggested that the bearded king to the left of the canvas is Francisco Pacheco, Velázquez’s father-in-law.

The identity of St. Joseph (to Mary’s left), and the young man on the other side of the painting is unknown, but Joseph could well have just dropped in after a day’s work at his carpentry shop, while the young man has all the hallmarks of an individual, down to the detail of his twisted necktie.  And Balthasar? Is he out of place? Not at all, and it is quite possible that too he is a real person. Seville in the 17th century was the home of many Black Africans, most having arrived there as part of the slave trade and many remaining in the city as domestics, including in Velázquez’s household.

The Adoration of the Magi is a meditative work with our attention drawn to the Baby Jesus wholly illuminated by the light falling on Him from the left. It is at the same time a rather static representation with the clear-cut lines, especially of Jesus balanced upright by Mary whose hands are unusually large, almost as large as those of the king kneeling before her. There is a vivid combination of colours in the clothing, made even more intense against a largely dark background. But the Adoration… lacks the fluidity of Velázquez’s mature works, although compared to religious canvases by his fellow Seville artists, e. g. Juan del Castillo (c.1590-c.1657), Francisco Pacheco,  Velázquez was already following an independent path.

Castillo’s Adoration of the Wise Men is a much more contrived, sentimental and idealized rendering of the arrival of the Wise Men. There is an imaginative attempt at creating something of a Middle Eastern flavour with the clothing of the Wise Men and more so of the crowd in the background.

The crowd scene itself seems inappropriate given no scriptural support; it clashes with what we might imagine to be an intimate moment when Mary and Joseph showed the Baby Jesus to the three distinguished visitors.  

The painting follows tradition in showing the kings paying homage to the Baby Jesus when according to scripture those visiting Christ as baby should be the shepherds. Jesus was a young child when the kings arrived to worship Him in, furthermore, a house (according to Matthew 2:11) not a stable (or more concretely a manger; Luke 2: 7-16).

The building shown in the upper left of the canvas is a curious hybrid of classical pillars supporting a rickety roof of wood. It seems an unfortunate combination, as if Castillo couldn’t make up his mind whether the action takes place in a house or a stable.

Finally, the Holy Family follows the idealized image popularized over the years, although the kings are individualized by realistic touches, especially in the faces of the two kings kneeling before Jesus.

The Mystic Marriage of St. Agnes (the patron saint of virgins) clearly has nothing to do with the adoration theme dealt with in this post. It is included for two reasons. 1. It is not untypical of the kind of idealized religious painting popular in Seville in the 17th century. Velázquez, however, was a much more original artist with no interest in creating a romanticized or sentimentalized world removed from everyday life. So, no angels, no cherubs, no conventional holy figures identified by halos, or virginal women with golden hair, so favoured by Renaissance art. 2. The Mystic Marriage … was painted by Francisco Pacheco, Velázquez’s father-in-law, mentor and a cultural authority in Seville. We might expect Velázquez to indulge his father-in-law with something that would please his artistic sense and view of decorum. However, the closest he comes to Pacheco’s world is his portrayal of the Immaculate Conception, but he studiously avoided surrounding his Virgin with angelic hosts. For a comparison, see The Immaculate Conception.

Brown, Dale  The World of Velázquez 1599-1660 New York 1969.

Brown, Jonathan Painting in Spain 1500-1700 Yale 1998.
Witschey, Erica ed. The Prado Masterpieces, trans. Philip Sutton, London, New York: Thames and Hudson 2016.
Lopez-Rey, Jose   Velázquez. The Complete Works Cologne 1997.
Tiffany, Tanya J.  Diego Velázquez’s Early Painting and the Culture of Seventeenth-century Seville  Pennsylvania 2012.
Juan del Castillo: Adoration of the Wise Men – [2], Public Domain,
Pacheco, Francisco. Mystic Marriage of St.Agnes.