Unusually, Dosso has set the Adoration of the Kings at night, which provided opportunities for the flickering brushwork for which he is noted. The huge harvest moon with a pink aureole, traversed by storm clouds, casts a mysterious golden light that picks out features of the fortified town in the background.
On the left-hand side of the scene is what looks like a cave, but is in fact architecture covered by vegetation. This is the artist’s version of the ruined arch – a common symbol in scenes of the Nativity, representing the decline of the old and the coming of a new age. The dramatic moon gives the scene a portentous feel; at the time the painting was made, such meterological effects were frequently interpreted as carrying meaning or presaging important events.
This picture was probably painted in Ferrara, where the artist worked for the court of the ruling Este family.
The most striking feature of this painting is the giant blood moon partly covered by grey clouds and a tree branch. Around 1527, Dosso became interested in powerful contrasts of light and shadow and his works depict dramatic weather effects.
The infant Christ part-stands on the Virgin’s knee and lifts his hand in blessing over the kings who have travelled from the East to adore him. The elderly Saint Joseph reclines on the ground, in a pose rather like a classical river god. His elbow rests on an open book that may represent the Old Testament which, after the birth of Christ, will now be superseded by the New Testament.
The kings have carried gifts to present to Christ. They have placed their offerings on the ground before the plinth on which the Virgin rests her foot. Caspar has brought an alabaster or marble vase; the oldest king, Melchior, has taken off his crown and wears a white turban embroidered with orange and blue thread with a golden fringe. Balthasar stands beneath the moon holding a ewer that probably contains frankincense, his arm outstretched. Originally Balthasar’s head faced in the other direction so the gesture may have once looked less strange. His pointed golden crown lies on the grass perilously near his bare foot. The crowd of horses and attendants behind him is supposed to suggest a throng but the effect appears rather muddled. The figure with his back to us derives from Giorgione’s Adoration of the Kings of 1506–7.
Behind the Virgin and Child is what looks like a cave covered in vegetation, but is actually a ruined classical arch – a common symbol in scenes of the Nativity, representing the decline of the old and the coming of a new age. The two bearded men may be sages or prophets.
The landscape is fantastically lit by the huge harvest moon which has turned the night sky on the horizon a deep rose and outlines the silhouettes of trees in gold. The lighting effects give the scene a portentous feel; at the time the painting was made, such meterological effects were frequently interpreted as carrying meaning or presaging important events. The thick grey clouds suggest that a storm is coming – a slender tree on the outskirts of the distant town sways in the wind. Patches of golden light on the ground are broken with shadows thrown by the clouds.
It is possible that Dosso may have seen a nocturnal painting by Giorgione or that he might have been influenced by seeing the work of Albrecht Altdorfer or another German artist. Raphael’s Madonna di Foligno of about 1512 shows the Virgin and Child high up in a cloudy sky against a huge golden sun. It is likely that Dosso actually painted the background in the Madonna di Foligno or, alternatively, that Raphael or whoever assisted him imitated Dosso’s style in painting it.
This picture was probably painted in Ferrara where the artist worked for the court of the ruling Este family. Fingerprints – probably Dosso’s – are very evident in the paint at the edge of the green foliage beside the pink sky, in the yellow of the moon, in the glazes of the green bushes and in the Virgin’s right arm.
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