Guided by a star, the Three Kings journeyed from the East to Bethlehem to honour the newborn Christ. Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
Girolamo’s depiction of the subject is unusual. Normally the holy family is shown in a stable in the ruins of a classical building and the kings are depicted with an entourage. The manner in which Caspar is prostrated on the ground here is also very unusual. Balthasar, contrary to appearances, is not being set upon by robbers – he is removing his sword, aided by his attendants, in preparation for his meeting with Christ.
The group of the Virgin and the infant Christ with the first two kings is derived from a tapestry cartoon (full-size drawing) made by followers of Raphael, called the Scuola Nuova cartoon (the original is now lost). A copy and another slightly earlier version of Girolamo’s picture are known.
According to the Gospel of Matthew (2: 1–12), wise men came from the East to worship the infant Christ. By the Middle Ages, they had been reimagined as the Three Kings, each assigned a name, an origin and an age – and also one of the three precious gifts mentioned in the Gospel. Caspar, King of Tarsus, aged 60, presented gold; Melchior, from Arabia, aged 40, presented frankincense; and Balthasar, from Saba, aged 20 (and usually, by the sixteenth century, represented as dark skinned), presented myrrh.
Girolamo da Carpi’s depiction of the subject is unusual. In Renaissance paintings the holy family is often shown in a stable incorporated within the ruins of a classical structure, but here there are only a few stone steps and a tree. The kings are generally depicted with an entourage, but here only Balthasar has attendants and there is no train of figures and animals in the landscape.
The group of the Virgin and the infant Christ with the first two kings is derived from a cartoon made by followers of Raphael in 1519 for a tapestry of this subject, known as the Scuola Nuova (New School) tapestry cartoon. This cartoon is the source for the figure of Caspar, who is normally shown kneeling, but is here prostrated on the ground. He is about to kiss Christ’s foot, which is extended towards him. The Virgin holds Caspar’s gift in her left hand, while Christ holds the lid and touches the coins inside; although this is commonly represented in Northern European pictures of the subject, it is relatively rare in Italian ones. Melchior eagerly offers up his container of frankincense.
Balthasar’s action is very strange – it looks as though he is being set upon by robbers. He holds the pot of myrrh in one hand, while his other is on his sword. He is probably removing his sword and sheath before paying homage to the ‘prince of peace’. The men beside him are his attendants, helping him to prepare for his meeting with Christ.
As well as the Scuola Nuova tapestry cartoon, Girolamo’s composition, especially the figures of Balthasar and his attendants, may have been influenced by a drawing of the Adoration of the Magi (now in the British Museum, London) made by Baldassare Peruzzi (1481–1537) in 1522. Peruzzi may have been involved in the design for the Scuola Nuova tapestry cartoon and his central group also derives from it. Girolamo da Treviso’s Adoration of the Kings is based on Peruzzi’s drawing.
Formerly catalogued as Ferrarese School, and then as North Italian, this painting is now believed to be by Girolamo da Carpi, who trained in Ferrara. It is highly characteristic of his work, both in details such as the elaborate sandals and in the colour palette, especially the inky blue sky. The tight mass of figures, exaggerated expressions and the same heavy, twisted drapery are all derived from the work of Giulio Romano, whose Mannerist style influenced Girolamo. There is another, slightly earlier, version of this painting by Girolamo da Carpi now in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City.
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