Christmas in Painting: Alessando Botticelli

Alessandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1475/76
(Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy)

This painting was commissioned to Botticelli by a Florentine Gaspar di Zanobi del Lama for the church of Santa Maria Novella. Quite in line with the tradition of the time, the real-life characters were incorporated in this pictorial adaptation of the Biblical story: the three Magi are the Medicis, Cosimo (as Melchior, presenting the gift to the Virgin), Piero (in red mantle, as Balthasar), and Giovanni (next to Piero, as Gaspar). Curiously enough, all three were dead by the time the painting was made; but this also explains why Balthasar who by 1475 had already been sometimes painted as the black king appears distinctly European (or even Florentine, perhaps).

The commissioner of the painting is pictured on the right, he is an old man in light blue mantle behind the man in black and red costume, pointing at the observer. And the solitary figure on the right wearing golden mantle is Botticelli himself.

Giorgio Vasari thus described the painting in his Lives of the Artists:

The beauty of the heads in this scene is indescribable, their attitudes all different, some full-face, some in profile, some three-quarters, some bent down, and in various other ways, while the expressions of the attendants, both young and old, are greatly varied, displaying the artist’s perfect mastery of his profession. Sandro further clearly shows the distinction between the suites of each of the kings. It is a marvellous work in colour, design and composition.

Before and after this painting, Botticelli would return to the topic in other works, and it is interesting to observe the similarities and differences in composition between all three paintings. In the 1475 work we only see a part of the stables. Undoubtedly, this allowed the artist to bring the “human” component of the painting into the focus, whereby we are looking at people, rather than contemplating the symbolic or religious meaning of the scene. There are also no strict horizontal divisions, although the figures are still “assembled” in a triangular mode.

Before that date, in a tondo painted between 1470 and 1474, Botticelli applies the perspective to his composition, as well as horizontal divisions. The stables vividly evoke the structure of the church, and the artist deftly manipulates the effect to create an impression of the depth of space. The divisions allegorically takes us from the world of people (the foreground populated with both people and horses) to the world of spirit (the elongated walls of the stables).

Finally, the 1481-82 painting does not boast too many figures, but the structure of the stables comes to the fore with its elaborate design. Perspective, but also landscape, play an equally important role. Mary now appears to be accepting the gifts of the Magi in the ruins of a classical temple or a Renaissance mansion, and the landscape that is visible through the aisle conveys the sense of idyll and peace. The sudden introduction of classical elements into the painting will become less unusual if we bear in mind that in the same years – 1481-1482 – Botticelli travelled to Rome and worked at the Vatican.

Alessandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1470-74
(National Gallery, London, UK)


Alessandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi, 1481-82
(National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, USA)

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