The shape and subject matter of this picture suggest that it was possibly painted as part of the predella (or lower part) of an altarpiece, although predellas were already rare in Venetian art during Giorgione’s lifetime.
The Virgin, Child and Saint Joseph are sitting on the steps of the stable where Christ has been born. The Three Kings have brought gifts to present to Christ, and kneel at a slight distance from the holy family. Caspar has already given his glass casket of myrrh to Joseph; the oldest king, Melchior, is about to present a golden bowl. Balthasar, the youngest king, kneels further away holding a glass orb that probably contains frankincense. The attendants wear exotic costumes and turbans, recalling their origins in the East. This painting is part of the so-called Allendale Group (after the Allendale Adoration of the Shepherds in the National Gallery of Art, Washington), paintings from earlier in Giorgione’s career which form the cornerstones of our understanding of his work.
The shape and subject matter of this picture suggest that it was possibly painted as part of the predella from the base of an altarpiece. However, predellas were already rare in Venetian art during Giorgione’s lifetime. This was because altarpieces changed from being polyptychs formed from many panels, to a unified image on a single panel. The predella usually contained narrative scenes relating to the main subject of the altarpiece. The main panel of this altarpiece may have been an image of the Virgin and Child.
The Virgin Mary, Christ Child and Saint Joseph are sitting on the steps of the stable where Christ has been born. The ox traditionally included in this scene watches from the left. The Virgin holds the naked Christ Child on her lap. She and Joseph look down pensively; only the infant Christ looks directly at us, his finger in his mouth.
The Three Kings have brought gifts to present to Christ and kneel at a slight distance from the holy family. Caspar has already given his glass casket of myrrh to Saint Joseph; the oldest king, Melchior is about to present his gift of a golden bowl. Balthasar, the youngest king, kneels further away holding a glass orb that probably contains frankincense. The crowd of attendants wear exotic costumes and turbans, suggesting their origins in the East. A soldier in plate armour and a helmet directs the attention of his dark skinned companion towards the holy family. Two young pages stand behind Balthasar while two grooms hold the horses. The groom with his back to us is also included in Dosso Dossi’s later Adoration of the Kings, suggesting that he had seen Giorgione’s panel.
The pensive stillness of the holy family contrasts with the bustle of the kings’ retainers, who face in different directions and go about their business. The third king’s head is almost masked by that of the first king. Giorgione seems to enjoy demonstrating his ability to arrange complex groups of figures rather than preserving the more traditional, frieze-like composition of the scene. His arrangement of the retinue allows him to include figures in unusual and difficult poses, such as the groom with his back to us and the standard bearer who is turning round with his legs crossed.
Tiny decorative details are included to catch our eye and draw our gaze across the panel: the seam has burst on the seat of the groom’s trousers; the retainer in the green fur-lined cloak wears an unusual hat decorated with a pattern of silver arabesques; a similar pattern appears on the belt of the young standard bearer at far right whose costume is even more elaborate than those of the kings; the horses’ harnesses are decorated with silver studs. Bright contrasting colours are used to create a rhythm across the scene, linking the groups of figures and tying the various parts of the composition together.
This painting is part of the so-called ‘Allendale Group’ (after the Allendale Nativity in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, which is almost unanimously accepted as by him) – paintings which form the cornerstones of our understanding of Giorgione’s work. The group also includes the Holy Family, also in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, and an Adoration of the Shepherds in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.
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