Jan Gossaert (Jean Gossart), 'The Adoration of the Kings'

  • Share this page


No reference to NG2790 has been found before 1600, when it was in a chapel dedicated to the Virgin in the church of the Benedictine Abbey of Geraardsbergen (Grammont) in East Flanders, south of Ghent and west of Brussels (fig.7). In August 1600 Albert and Isabella, the rulers of the Spanish Netherlands, returning from Oudenaarde to Brussels, visited the abbey, saw the painting and asked to have it.1 On 5 April 1601 Albert authorised a payment of £2,100 to the abbot for its purchase2 and on 18 May 1601 it was recorded that the painter Gijsbrecht van Veen, residing in Brussels, had been sent to Geraardsbergen to buy from the Abbey of St Andrew the painting in oil on panel of the 'Adoration of the Three Kings or Magi', 2 ¾ ells high by 2 ells wide, with its plain frame. It was to be placed on the high altar of the chapel of the palace in Brussels (fig.8).3 The picture was reframed and installed in the chapel in 1603.4 It was mentioned in several sources of the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.5

Benedictine Abbey of Geraardsbergen
fig.7 Petrus Canivé, 'The Abbey of Geraardsbergen from the North East' © Geraardsbergen, De Abdij

J.P. Van Bauerscheit, Vue Interieure de la Chapelle du Palais
fig.8 J.P. van Bauerscheit, 'Interior of the Chapel in the old palace at Brussels' © Brussels, Maison du Roi-Musée de la Ville

Three descriptions are particularly informative: that by François-Nicolas Baudot, sieur du Buisson et d'Aubenay (c.1590–1652), commonly called Dubuisson-Aubenay, a Frenchman who visited the Low Countries several times between 1623 and 1627;6 that by Chifflet (1650);7 and that by Losano, who was employed in the palace chapel between 1692 and 1712.8 The framing elements were of gilded wood. There were two fluted columns with a 'frontispiece' above, surmounted by a cross and, at a lower level, by two angels. On a raised oval on the tympanum was the dedicatory inscription: Deo Opt. Max. D.D. MDCIII (Given and dedicated to the best and greatest God, 1603) and on an architrave above the picture was a polygonal plaque bearing a Latin inscription in gold letters on a blue ground: Aurum, Myrrham, Thus regique hominique deoque dona ferunt (They bring as gifts to the king and the man and the God gold, myrrh and frankincense). During Lent and Advent the painting was replaced or covered by another, in grisaille, of the Crucifixion.

The 'Adoration' remained on the altar until the fire of February 1731 which destroyed the palace but spared the chapel.9 It was subsequently put back in the chapel10 and remained there for some time. The building was demolished in the 1770s but the picture had been removed by Charles of Lorraine (1712–1780), Governor of the Austrian Netherlands from 1744. In the inventory taken after his death it was listed as 'A picture representing “The Adoration of the Magi”, painted by Halbert Dur [i.e. Albrecht Dürer], on panel, 5½ by 5 feet'.11 It was included in the sale of Charles's effects in Brussels on 21 May – 27 June 1781. According to undated notes made by François Mols (1722–1791),12 it passed into the possession of 'Mr. Le Cock, Conseiller-Pensionnaire-Adjoint des Etats de Brabant': Emmanuel-Marie de Cock (1742–1796), who was from 1776 Pensionary of Brussels and Greffier-Pensionary of the Estates of Brabant.13 He died in exile at Brno; meanwhile NG2790 was said to have been owned by M. van Fulens at The Hague, about whom nothing has been discovered.

NG2790 is thought to have been the 'tableau unique' which in May 1787 was exhibited in the house in Leicester Square, London, of the auctioneer John Greenwood (c.1729–1792). 'A Foreign Gentleman has brought into England a picture that astonishes every person who has seen it ... It is to be viewed ... from ten in the morning till six in the evening, at one shilling per person.'14 On 26 April 1788 it was auctioned by Greenwood, in his rooms in Leicester Square, with a 'Select Collection of Cabinet Pictures, Just consigned from Abroad, the Property of M. VAN FULENS, late of the Hague'. Billed as 'a superb picture by J. de Mabuse ... which merits a place in the first Cabinet in Europe', it was the subject of a 'description ... which lays on the table'.15 This 'Description' was a printed sheet which was perhaps prepared for the exhibition of 1787 and in which the history of the painting was set out, with much scholarly detail.16 The buyer's name has not been discovered. By 1795 NG2790 was in the possession of the dealer and writer Michael Bryan (1757–1821). It was No. 180 in the 'superlatively capital assemblage of Valuable Pictures ... to be sold by private contract at Bryan's Gallery, Savile Row, 27 April 1795 (& subsequently)'.17 On 16 March 1796 Bryan acknowledged having received from the Earl of Carlisle a picture by Poussin, valued at 200 guineas, 'in part payment for a Picture sold to his Lordship by John de Mabuse representing the Wiseman's offering, for the sum of Four Hundred Guineas'. On 28 June 1796, he issued a receipt for an additional 300 guineas for the same picture.18 Farington reported in his diary on 20 March 1796 that, at Bryan's Gallery, 'Lord Carlisle has bought the large high finished picture by [Gossart]'.19

Lord Carlisle was the great collector Frederick Howard (1748–1825), 5th Earl of Carlisle. He took NG2790 to his country seat, Castle Howard in Yorkshire, where by August 1796 it was placed, with other sixteenth-century pictures, in a small room. 'The better to ensure its safe preservance, a covering of green silk fitted into a wooden frame, guards it from danger; - it is constantly locked-up, unless when opened for the inspection of visitors.'20 No. 17 in the Castle Howard catalogues of 1805 and 1814,21 it passed to the Earl's son George (1778–1848), 6th Earl of Carlisle, his son George William Frederick (1802–1864), 7th Earl, and his brother William George (1808–1889), 8th Earl. In 1884 it was being restored by (William) Morrill in London.22 Moved in 1885 from Castle Howard to Naworth Castle in Cumberland,23 it was inherited by the 8th Earl's nephew, George James Howard (1843–1911), 9th Earl of Carlisle. Shortly before his death, the 9th Earl, who was an amateur painter and who had been for more than 30 years an influential Trustee of the National Gallery, had agreed to offer the 'Adoration' to the Gallery at a price much below its market value. His widow, Rosalind Frances (née Stanley, 1845–1921), immediately put his wishes into effect by offering the picture for £40,000.24 The Earl's will was proved on 14 June 1911; the Dowager Countess then sent the painting to the Gallery, where it remained on loan, though not on public exhibition, until the money was raised for its purchase.25 Lady Carlisle's offer was accepted on 3 August26 and, though the purchase was not completed until 8 January 1912, an official announcement of the acquisition was made on 1 September 1911, when the picture was placed on exhibition.27 The government made a special grant of £15,000, plus the legacy and estate duties (£2,776) payable by Lady Carlisle in respect of the picture, on the understanding that the annual purchase grant of £5,000 should be suspended for the year 1912–13. (The Lords of the Treasury had attempted to suspend the purchase grant for four years but the Prime Minister, H.H. Asquith, wrote from Downing Street on 24 August 1911 to curb their parsimony.28) The Gallery raised £13,000: £10,020 from the Temple-West Fund; £2,380 from the Loan Exhibition Fund; and £600 from the Grant-in-Aid account. Alfred Charles de Rothschild (1848–1918) contributed £500; Edward Priaulx Tennant (1859–1920), first Baron Glenconner, gave £500; Edward Cecil Guinness (1847–1927), first Earl of Iveagh, donated £1,000. The remaining £10,000 came from the National Art Collections Fund and included subscriptions of £500 from George Nathaniel Curzon (1859–1925), Earl Curzon of Kedleston, and £50 from Messrs Sully.29 The Chairman and Honorary Secretaries of the Fund wrote on 31 August 1911:

The satisfaction of the Committee of the National Art-Collections Fund in being able to give decisive help towards so notable an acquisition has been increased by their sense of the extremely favourable terms upon which the picture has been offered to the nation by the Dowager Countess of Carlisle, acting in accordance with the known wishes of her late husband, and without the intervention of agent or middle-man. There was no picture in England better worth preserving for the nation: none which should be a more splendid or more popular addition to the Gallery ...30

To celebrate the acquisition, a book was published: 'The "Adoration of the Magi" by Jan Mabuse Formerly in the Collection of the Earl of Carlisle'. The text was by Maurice W. Brockwell (1869–1958), who was employed between 1907 and 1911 by Sir Charles Holroyd, the Director of the Gallery, to revise the catalogues. Brockwell's book was privately printed by The Athenaeum Press. This seems to have been the first occasion on which the acquisition of an important painting for the Gallery was commemorated by the publication of a monographic study.

Further Sections


1. van Waesberghe 1627, p. 178 (the Abbot Jérôme de Monceaux ‘Epiphaniam sacelli Deiparae Virginis, “Ioannis Malbodij” egregij pictoris opus cessit Alberto Austriaco Belgarum Principi Aldenarda hac Bruxellas cum coniuge serenissima Isabella transeunti, & magno opere roganti’); Ruteau 1637, pp. 228–9 (‘Soubs le mesme Abbé l'Archiduc Albert auec Isabella Infante d'Espagne, venant d'Audenarde à Grardmont, & visitant l'Eglise de S. Adrien, il impetra de l'Abbé & Conuent la peinture de la Chapelle de nostre Dame, pour la mettre en la sienne Royalle, comme elle est encore presentement, & offrit au Monastere en recompense deux mille florins: c'estoit vn oeuure de Iean de Maubeuge excellent peintre ...’). Steppe 1965, pp. 39–46, cited manuscript sources of the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They are later than the books by van Waesberghe and Ruteau and do not seem to add significantly to what is printed there.


2. ‘pour l’achapt qu’avons faict de luy d’une pièce de paincture représentant les Trois Roys ...’ (de Maeyer 1955, p. 269). For the payment itself, see Finot 1888, p. 5.


3. ‘Digo yo, Joachim Denzenhear, guarda ropa y joyas del Sermo Sor Archiduque Alberto, que la pintura sobre tabla, al olio, de la Adoracion de los Tres Reyes Magos, de dos añas y tres quartas de alto y dos y media de ancho, con su marco llano, que Su Ala mando comprar por mano del pintor Grisbeque Benio, beçino de Brusselas, del abadia de Sant Andres, que esta en camara de Gramont, en ocho mill y quatroscientos reales pagados por finanças, por mano del recividor general Christobal Godin en el mes de abril de mill y seiscientos y un años, que la dicha pintura hea de poner en la capilla real del palacio de Brusselas en el altar mayor de la dicha capilla. La qual dicha pintura queda en mi poder. En cuya berdad di esta firmada de mi nombre. Al dicho Christobal Godin en Brusselas, a 18 de mayo año de 1601 años. Joachim Dencenhear’ (de Maeyer 1955, p. 270).


4. The previous retable, made by Jean Mone in 1538–41 and installed in 1554, was removed and restored; it is now in the cathedral of Brussels. See Duverger et al. 1953, pp. 23, 89–90. For the history of the chapel and palace, see Smolar-Meynart et al. 1991.


5. ‘Inter alia’ Miraeus 1622, pp. 97–9: ‘... “Ioanni Malbodio” (cujus opus eximium, grandi aere à Gerardimontano Abbate redemptum, in sacello palatij Bruxellensis collocauit)’; notes by Peeter Stevens (1590–1668) in his copy of  van Mander's ‘Schilder-Boeck’, which he acquired in 1625: ‘Ditto Mabuse heeft oock gemaeckt een schoon stuck dat staet tot Brussel inde Capelle oft Hoff. Het subiect is van de drij Coninghen. Heeft synen naem daer in gestelt, staet alsoo omden hals van een figuer geschreven: Jannyn Goussaert de Mabuse’(published by Briels 1980, p. 213); du Molinet 1682 (Gachard 1839, p. 56): ‘L’autel, qui est de marbre, a un tableau des plus beaux, de la manière d’Albert Durer’; ‘L'Histoire de l'archiduc Albert gouverneur general et puis prince souverain de la Belgique’, Cologne 1693, p. 359: ‘Il acheta à grand prix de l’Abbé de Grandmont une pièce de Jean de Maubeuge qu’on void encore dans la Chapelle de la Cour à Brusselle’; Brussels, September 1693 (Gessler 1933): ‘in de Capel van ’t Hoff, daer op den autaer een seer fraey stuck van Maubeuge staet. Is de Offerhande van Wijsen aen onse Heer’; H.F. van Heussen, trans. H. Van Ryn, 1722, part I, p. 81: ‘De gemelde “Jan van Maubeuge” mengde zijne kleuren met water/ zoo als zijne andere schilderyen uytwijzen: te weeten die deftige kruyshechting in de kerck van Tongerlo; en de aanbidding der drie koninkgen/ dwelke op ’t outaer der Hof-kapelle te Brussel staat.’ It is possibly the picture vaguely described in an inventory of 1659: ‘En la capilla ... una pintura de Nuestra Señora, San Joseph y Nuestro Señor, de seis pies de alto y quatro y medio de ancho’ (de Maeyer 1955, p. 446).


6. ‘En la chapelle de la Cour, au maître-autel, il y a une contre-table faite en forme de portail, tout de bois, deux colonnes cannelées à vuide par le haut et dorées, le frontispice au dessus où il y a au sommet une croix, aux deux costés plus bas deux anges et au tympan dans une ovale élevée cecy: ‘Deo Opt’.  ‘Max. D.D. Anno MDCIII’. Entre les colonnes et le frontispice est tendu le tableau, de hauteur comme de 4 pieds, de largeur ou longueur parallèle à l’autel 3 pieds. C’est une Adoration des Roys (Epiphanie) avec plusieurs personnages représentés à leur suite et une perspective de la crêche. Il a esté apporté de Géramont, estimé 20.000 francs. L’architrave qui borne ce tableau par en haut a en son milieu une place plus large que le reste et faite en forme de plaque à plusieurs angles avec cecy en lettres d'or: ‘Aurum, Myrrham, Thus regique hominique deoque dona ferunt’ (Halkin 1946, p. 60).


7. ‘Arae tabella peruetus, Epiphania est, Ioannis Malbodij, pictorum aeui sui principis, penicillo expressa, quam ab Hieronymo Monçaeo, Gerardi montis in Flandriâ Coenobiarchâ, impetrarunt Serenissimi Albertus & Isabella, cùm fortè per Monasterium euis iter haberent circa annum M.DC. oblatis pretij loco duobus florenorum millibus. Limbus haud alius quàm è ligno deaurato, & supra appositè haec Iuuenci sacri Poëtae verba: ‘Aurum, Thus, Myrrham, Regique, Hominique, Deoque Dona ferunt’. At verò per totum Dominici Aduentus & verni Ieiunij cursum altera ei tabella Christi crucifixi sussicitur, quae subnigris coloribus destinato ab Ecclesiâ lacrymis & poenitentiae tempori mirè conuenit’ (Chifflet 1650, pp. 9-10).


8. A.G.R., Manuscrits divers 821, fols 4v–5: ‘La Chapelle royale de la Cour de Bruxelles ... La Table d’autel est tres magnificque. Le Tablau [sic] represente l’adoration de trois Roys au petit Jesus née [sic] dans le Bethelem; il est paint par Jean Malbody pintre de ses sermes. Princes. Tout la structure du dit Autel est doré et au dessus du Tablau il y at escrit ansi en lettre d’or sur un font bleu[:] Aurum, Thus, Myrrhan [sic], Regique, Hominique, Deoque dona ferunt[,] et deplus durant l’Aduent, et le Quaresme, l’on expose un aultre tablau, ou il y at pint, le bon dieu pendant a la Croix, pint en obscure, et sans aultre coleur que du pinseau noir, ce qu’il conuient pour representer le temps de petitence [sic].’ For Losano, see A.G.R., Manuscrits divers 822.


9. It is listed, as ‘L’adoration des Trois Roys de la chapelle Royalle’, in the 1732 inventory of pictures saved from the fire (de Maeyer 1955., p. 463).


10. ‘Description de la ville de Bruxelles’, Brussels 1743, p. 12: ‘Le principal Autel est orné d’un tableau représentant l'adoration des Mages fait par le fameux Jean Malbodius.’


11. ‘No 66. Un tableau représentant l’adoration des Mages, peint par ‘Halbert Dur’, sur bois, h. 5 pieds ½, l. 5 pieds’ (Jacquot 1896, p. 53).


12. B.R., II 11978, annotated copy of H. Walpole, ‘Anecdotes of Painting in England’, 2nd edn, Strawberry Hill 1765, vol. I i, facing p. 50: ‘... un beau Tableau de lui [Gossart] representant l’Adoration des Mages lequel du Cabinet de feu S. Al. Le Duc Charles de Lorraine & de Bar, est passé dans Celui de Mr. Le Cock, Conseiller-Pensionnaire-Adjoint des Etats de Brabant ...’.


13. Ryckman de Betz  & de Jonghe d'Ardoye, p. 1077; Claessens 1968; Claessens 1969.


14. Advertisement from an unspecified ‘journal’ reprinted in Whitley 1928, vol. II, p. 191. For John Greenwood, who had been a dealer in Holland before settling in England, see Redgrave 1874, p. 178.


15. Sale catalogue, p. 8 (111); photocopy at the NG. According to the ‘Morning Post’ of 26 April 1788, ‘The Picture of Jean de Mabuse of the Wise Men's Offering which will be sold this day at Greenwood’s, is supposed to be the most capital Antique Painting in the world, and merits a place in the first Cabinet in Europe, being in perfect preservation and extremely scarce’ (reprinted by Whitley 1928, vol. II, p. 192).


16. Horace Walpole acquired one of these printed ‘Descriptions’ and preserved it in his own copy of his ‘Anecdotes’, now in The Lewis Walpole Library at Yale University and formerly in the library of the Earl of Derby. It was reprinted by Brockwell 1911, Appendix, pp. 7-9.


17. Transcript at the NG; see also Whitley 1928, vol. II, p. 193.


18. Castle Howard Archive, J 14/27/2, J 14/27/3: these receipts were discovered and transcribed by Nicholas Penny.


19. Garlick & MacIntyre 1978, p. 512. The price was 500 guineas (‘An Account of the Paintings at Ince collected by H. B[lundell]’, s.l. 1803, p. cxci [CXC]).


20.  Manners 1813, pp. 92–3 (referring to a visit on 13 August 1796).


21. ‘A Descriptive Catalogue of the Pictures at Castle-Howard’, Malton 1814, pp. 5–6.


22. Castle Howard Archive, J 22/78, letter of 21 August 1884 from Sir Frederick Burton to the future Earl of Carlisle (discovered and transcribed by Nicholas Penny): ‘Morrill is getting on with your Gossaert. Perhaps I shall find it done today. It is a pity that you could not have seen the back of the panels (six in number), after the planing down. The nut brown oak, with its beautiful markings, is a picture in itself, not a wormhole in it, and the joining of the panels is so perfect that only the variation of the graining reveals it ...’ William Morrill (1838–1910) ran a picture-lining business at 3 Duck Lane, off Wardour Street in Soho.


23. Davies 1968, p. 65.


24. Board Minutes of 9 May 1911, NG 8/57, p. 57.


25. Board Minutes of 9 May, 26 June, NG 8/57, pp. 57, 60–1.


26. Board Minutes of 14 November, NG 8/57, p. 69.


27. Board Minutes of 13 February 1912, NG 8/57, p. 79; ‘Morning Post’, 1 September 1911 (cutting in the NG dossier).


28. Correspondence in NG 7/395/1911.


29. Correspondence in NG 7/397/1911; ‘Report of the Director of the National Gallery, for the Year 1911, with Appendices’, London 1912, pp. 2-3, 8.


30. ‘Morning Post’, 1 September 1911 (cutting in the NG dossier). The Chairman was the Earl of Balcarres; the Secretaries were Isidore Spielmann and Robert C. Witt.