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This scene is so unusual that it’s not entirely clear who the figures are intended to represent. Usually the Three Kings are shown kneeling before the Christ Child; here, instead, we can see two of them standing proudly before the Virgin and Child, presenting their gifts in large vessels. We aren't sure which figure is intended to represent the third king.
The figure with the mane of hair who looks straight towards us is John the Baptist. It’s unusual to see him in this scene, but his baptism of Christ is celebrated on 6 January – the same day that the visit of the Three Kings is celebrated.
Bramantino was fascinated by linear perspective (using line to create an impression of three-dimensional space on a flat surface). He created a guide of intersecting lines on this panel, allowing him to paint objects and figures at the correct scale relative to each other so they appear to be in a realistic three-dimensional space.
This small, portable picture has all the solemnity of a large altarpiece, despite being an independent image that was probably made for private devotion. Though the figures are tiny, Bramantino wanted viewers to feel small in their presence – an effect he has achieved through their sturdiness, symmetrical arrangement and grand and dignified poses.
Bramantino’s paintings are known for the originality of their design, and this scene of the Adoration of the Kings, described in the Gospel of Matthew (2: 1–11), is so unusual that it’s not entirely clear who the figures are intended to represent. Usually images of the Adoration show the kings grouped together, often kneeling before the Christ Child. Here, instead, we can see two of them standing proudly before the Virgin and Child, presenting their gifts in large vessels.
Since only two of the figures hold vessels that might contain gifts, it is difficult to know which of the others is also a king. As one of them was sometimes depicted as a black African, some have identified the man standing to the left of the Virgin, pointing towards her, as the third king. But this figure has also been associated with the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, who foretold the birth of Christ; if that’s so, maybe the final king is the man with the blue turban on the right. The figure with the lion-like mane of hair who looks straight out towards us is John the Baptist, whose role was to foretell Christ’s ministry. It is unusual to see him in this scene but his baptism of Christ is celebrated on 6 January – the same day that the visit of the three kings is celebrated.
Bramantino was also an architect, and was fascinated by linear perspective – he even wrote a treatise on the subject (now lost). X-ray images show that he incised a grid of intersecting lines into the gesso before beginning to paint – if you look closely at the picture from below you can see these incisions. Examination of the grid shows that it matches the specific method for drawing in perspective invented by the Renaissance architect, painter and theorist Leon Battista Alberti. It allowed Bramantino to paint the objects and figures at the correct scale in relation to each other and their distance from the viewer, making it seem like they are in a realistic three-dimensional space.
It might seem surprising given his passion for order – and architecture – that the scene is set within a crumbling house. Its crumbling edges, however, soften the effect of the picture’s strict geometry. The landscape background – which he painted freely, changing his mind several times – adds variety, the vast rock formations enduring while the built architecture crumbles. A tiny angel hovers on a cloud above a precipice.
When this work was first acquired it was thought to be by Mantegna. Both painters were inspired by the art of ancient Greece and Rome, seen here in the architecture and the vessels on the ground which resemble ancient tombs; both painted draperies with deep, crisp folds. Unlike Mantegna, Bramantino used oil paint which, because it dries slowly, allowed him to blend colours more easily. He was able to create subtle effects, for example mimicking the effect of light falling on fabric – we see this in the green draperies of the king on the right as he is hit by the sun.
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