Jan. 6 is Epiphany, a Christian feast day celebrating the revelation of God incarnate in Jesus Christ.
It is also known as Three King’s Day commemorating the westward journey of the three Magi carrying gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the scene of the nativity in Bethlehem, as written in the Gospel of Matthew.
We know it by singing the popular Christmas carol: “We Three Kings of Orient are, bearing gifts we traverse afar, field and fountain, moor and mountain, following yonder star.”
And on Epiphany Eve, the Twelfth Night, we might think Shakespeare, or not, while eating Three King’s Cake hoping to find the hidden bean and claim the gold paper crown to become king.
In 1423, renowned artist Gentile da Fabriano was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a wealthy banker,to create an altarpiece for his family chapel in the Basilica di Santa Trinita in Florence.
Florence was not ruled by kings but by an affluent class of merchants, bankers and guilds. Strozzi’s keen patronage of the arts and his desire to exhibit his wealth and status, led to da Fabriano’s “Adoration of the Magi,” considered the epitome of the International Gothic style of the late 14th to early 15th century.
In this uniquely constructed, detailed and radiant work, da Fabriano created a continuous narrative of the journey of the Magi and the birth of Christ, while using new techniques such as layering real gold leaf under layers of paint to create an added glow by candlelight and by his use of “pastiglia,” building up areas with plaster and gesso to give a 3D illusion.
At the top of the gilded frame, three curlicue spires contain three tondos, God in the centre, the archangel Gabriel to the left unfurling God’s Annunciation scroll, and to the right the Virgin Mary accepting her fate.
The three background scenes tell the Magi’s story from the sighting of the star, to riding in procession to Herod’s Jerusalem and onward to enter the gate of Bethlehem. Details abound. A solitary traveller is robbed by thieves. A cheetah on the back of a horse is poised to leap to chase a deer.
The smaller scale of these images suggests distance and depth in contrast to the surface handling of the foreground where the Magi have arrived at the scene of the nativity.
The entourage crowd presses forward to see, faces expressive, costumes resplendent, the foreshortened horses adorned in splendid gold tack turn in nervous agitation. These beautiful horses are a luxury, expensive to own and maintain and the exclusive privilege of kings and nobility.
The royal dog lies apprehensively under the hooves. Exotic animals, kept as pets or gifts, are in the throng. Monkeys sit on a dromedary; a lioness eyes two birds. The patron, Palla Strozzi, holds his falcon (strozzieri is Tuscan for falconer), while standing behind the elegant, red stockinged young Magus, Balthasar, who holds his gift of myrrh, a perfumed embalming oil, symbolic of death, while his gold spurs are being removed by his groom in preparation for kneeling.
Caspar, the middle-aged Magus with a reddish beard, reaches to remove his crown before bowing to the infant King of Kings to present his gift of frankincense, the symbol of deity. The elderly Melchior kneels, his crown on the ground, while the Christ child places his little hand on his bald head, an act of benediction as the Magus tenderly brings the child’s foot to his lips.
Mary sits resplendent in a robe of costly lapis lazuli pigment. Her attendants examine Melchior’s gift of gold, the symbol of kingship on earth. Golden halos, inscribed with possibly Mughal script, follow a sinuous line upward to the star above.
Three paintings in the predella below represent Christ’s early life and reveal da Fabriano experimenting with light and shadow. In the nativity, he captures the crescent moon and its dark side and the angel announcing the birth in a blaze of light to shepherds with their flocks.
The newborn infant radiates an aura of light in what may be the first night rendition of the nativity. The flight to Egypt takes place as the midday sun throws brilliant light and dark shadows on the hills. The final scene depicts the presentation of Jesus in the temple, his induction into Judaism 40 days after his birth.
The painting celebrates nature with flowers spilling out of the columns that bracket the images on either side. Pomegranate trees symbolize power, beauty and eternal life, and olive trees symbolize peace, wisdom, prosperity and success. Let us add joy and hope for the days ahead.
Penny-Lynn Cookson is an art historian who formerly taught at the University of Toronto and was head of extension services at the Art Gallery of Ontario. See her upcoming series on “The Venetians” from RiverBrink Art Museum, Feb. 17 to March 24 on Zoom.