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The Three Kings have arrived to worship the newborn Christ. The Virgin Mary presents the baby, who has a bright halo of light around his tiny head, to the kneeling king, who takes the child’s small foot in his hand in order to kiss it. Spranger has positioned the two other kings around the mother and child; both proudly bear ornate gold vessels containing their gifts. They adopt elegant poses, their limbs curving and arching gracefully. The citrus colours of the kings' clothing – peach shot with bright orange and acidic yellow – stand out in the darkness.
The self-conscious glamour of the figures is a feature of the style known as Mannerism. Its elegance and flamboyance suited the tastes of wealthy and sophisticated patrons, making it a popular style in courtly circles. Spranger was originally from Antwerp, but became court painter to the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolf II. This painting may have been commissioned as a gift for one of Rudolf’s loyal German bishops.
The Three Kings have arrived to worship the newborn Christ and offer him gifts – according to the Gospel of Matthew (2: 1–12), they followed a star to find him. The Virgin Mary presents the baby, who has a bright halo of light around his tiny head, to the kneeling king, who takes the child’s small foot in his hand in order to kiss it.
Spranger has positioned the two other kings, both proudly bearing ornate gold vessels containing their gifts, around the mother and child. Joseph, the shadowy figure in a lime green tunic, encloses the group from behind. The kings and Joseph all adopt elegant poses, their limbs curving and arching gracefully. The elderly, kneeling king may be Melchior, from Arabia. The black king is probably intended to represent Balthasar, who was thought to be African; his jewelled turban-style hat with a feather is an approximation of Moorish (North African) dress. The king in yellow, dressed in the style of a Roman soldier, is probably Caspar, King of Tarsus, a Roman city. The citrus colours of their glamorous clothing – peach shot with bright orange and acidic yellow – stand out in the darkness.
These dazzling hues contrast dramatically with the gloominess of the upper part of the scene where, on the left, is the stable in which Christ was born. Shepherds load hay into the partially open wooden structure; an ox has emerged and seems to be scrutinising the exotic visitors. This rugged vignette, which includes a shepherd playing the bagpipes, recalls the paintings of Spranger’s contemporaries in his Flemish homeland. The stable is enclosed by ruined classical architecture – a nod to the buildings Spranger would have seen in Rome and a common feature of images of the Adoration of the Kings, where they symbolise how Christ‘s birth toppled paganism. The guiding star appears in the sky at the top left.
The self-conscious glamour of the foreground figures is a feature of the style known as Mannerism (the term comes from the Italian word maniera, meaning manner or style). Its elegance and flamboyance suited the tastes of its wealthy and sophisticated patrons and it became a popular style in courtly circles. The style first developed in Italy in the sixteenth century, where Spranger (who was born in Antwerp) had spent ten years. Shortly afterwards, his skills earned him the position of court painter to Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, taking him to Vienna and then Prague. He has proudly inscribed this picture with an elaborate signature that proclaims his background and credentials, adding after his name: ’born in Antwerp and painter to his Holy Majesty the Emperor'. He may even have included his own image: the king in yellow is sometimes thought to be a self portrait.
It has been suggested that this painting once served as the altarpiece in the chapel of Geyersworth Castle, the residence of the Prince-Bishops in Bamberg, northern Bavaria. The recipient may have been Prince-Bishop Neidhard von Thüngen, who was particularly active in the Holy Roman Empire’s battle against Protestantism and the threat posed by the Turks. Rudolf may have presented the painting as a gift to thank him for his support. In 1763 the castle collapsed, but the painting survived. It was moved to the chapel of nearby Seehof Castle, where it has been suggested the top corners were cut down to create the present framing arch. It was then set within a carved stucco (plaster) frame in the wall, as was fashionable in the eighteenth century.
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