This large altarpiece is crammed with peasants, animals, angels and richly dressed kings and courtiers, come to worship the infant Christ, who sits on his mother’s lap in a palatial but ruined building.
Jean Gossart has signed the painting on the hat of Balthasar, the king on the left, and on the silver collar of his attendant. Technical analysis has revealed the skill, time and effort which the artist put into this picture. There is a considerable amount of underdrawing and a great many changes made at all stages, all apparently done by Gossart himself. There are virtuoso passages of detail, especially in the foreground: the hairs sprouting from Caspar’s cheek and the decoration of his hat; the fringes of Balthasar’s stole.
By 1600 this painting was perhaps in the abbey of St Adrian at Geraardsbergen (Graamont) in East Flanders. Gossart seems to have painted it for the church between about 1510 and 1515, probably for the funerary chapel of Daniel van Boechout, lord of Boelare near Geraardsbergen.
This large altarpiece is crammed with peasants, animals, angels and richly dressed kings and courtiers, come to worship the infant Christ. This is the Adoration of the Kings (Matthew 2: 11), when the Three Kings followed a star from the east and found Christ in a stable in Bethlehem.
In a palatial but ruined building, the Virgin Mary sits with the Christ Child on her lap. She holds a golden goblet containing gold coins, the lid of which lies at her feet. This is the gift of the elderly king, Caspar, who kneels before her, his hat and sceptre on the ground. His name is inscribed on the lid in gilded letters which cast shadows against a concave outer ring. Christ takes one of the coins in his left hand. The second king, Melchior, stands behind Caspar on the right, and carries frankincense in an elaborate golden vessel. Opposite him the third king approaches. His name runs around the top of his hat: BALTAZAR. His gift of myrrh is contained in a golden vessel decorated with naked babies. The gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh are thought to symbolise respectively tribute, sacrifice and burying of the dead. On a capital above Caspar’s head is a representation of the sacrifice of Isaac, which prefigures the Crucifixion.
Between Balthasar and the Virgin, Saint Joseph leans on his staff and gazes up at the angels hovering in the air above. Behind him, an ox pokes its head through a doorway in which stands another angel. A nearby donkey munches weeds. Directly behind Caspar are two shepherds, one carrying a musical instrument, the other holding a straw hat and an implement used for herding sheep. In the distance we see the same shepherds receiving the news of Christ’s birth. Like the kings, they have come to adore the Christ Child (Luke 2: 8–18). The star which guided the kings shines above the stable and the dove of the Holy Ghost hovers below it, as angels fill the sky. Some of the kings‘ retinue crowd in behind them, while others on horseback can be seen through the window on our right.
Jean Gossart has signed the painting in two places: once on Balthasar’s hat, and once on the silver collar of his attendant. Technical analysis has revealed the skill, time and effort that Gossart put into this picture. Infrared reflectograms show considerable amounts of underdrawing and a great many changes made at all stages. The main lines of the architecture are ruled but the rest of the drawing is freehand, with no indications that any kind of mechanical transfer was used. The drawing is detailed, down to knuckles and fingernails, wrinkles in clothes and patterns on textiles. Gossart often drew several lines to get the right contour, for example in Caspar’s nose. Heads, faces and clothes were changed; almost all the architecture was altered when the painting was nearly finished and some figures were painted directly on top of whatever is behind them, including the ox, the donkey, Caspar’s sceptre and the lid of his goblet. The broken tiles in the floor and the plants growing through were all added after the grid of the floor, itself laid out only after the main figures had been blocked in. All the underdrawing and changes appear to be by Gossart himself, even down to the hasty painting of subsidiary heads – there are no obvious interventions by assistants.
In order to extend the range of colour and tone, Gossart has mixed and layered his pigments in unusually complex ways, undermodelling some colours in different tones of grey. A fingerprint on the green robe of the angel behind the ox shows that Gossart blotted the glaze with his finger. There are virtuoso passages of detail, especially in the foreground: the hairs sprouting from Caspar’s cheek and the decoration of his hat; the fringes of Balthasar’s stole.
Gossart drew on several sources, most importantly the Montforte Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) which inspired the magnificently dressed kings and attendants, the broken architecture and the flying angels. But Gossart took Hugo’s views through ruined buildings to distant landscapes a step further, opening up a vast recession towards distant mountains in the centre of his painting. Other elements – the dogs, and details of dress – are drawn from prints by Albrecht Dürer and Martin Schongauer. Gossart transformed them into a composition that is entirely his own: the dog on the right has an almost quivering alertness that is not taken from Dürer. Gossart’s command of the oil painting technique and his mastery of light allowed him to make its eye sparkle and its nose and whiskers twitch.
The geometrical arrangement of the composition gives the picture its powerful structure. The painting is divided into two horizontal registers: the heavenly zone of the star, dove and angels, and the earthly zone of the Virgin and Child, the kings and shepherds. The figures in each do not overlap, but the zones are united by the strong verticals of the architecture, stressed by the sudden contrasts of light and shade. The architecture makes no structural sense, but serves to emphasise verticals in the lower zone: Balthasar’s gift and the ends of his scarf line up with the section of wall behind, as do the strongly lit folds hanging from the Virgin’s right knee. Heavenly and earthly figures echo each other: Caspar’s pose is not unlike that of the angel in pink immediately above him, while his shape is echoed by the dog in the right hand corner. The figures inhabit a deep space, the sense of recession emphasised by their relative positions on the squares of the floor. The strong diagonal recession between Balthasar and Melchior is highlighted by the fact that they reflect and reverse each other’s poses, and the pinks and greens of their outfits make a sort of counterpoint. Another strong diagonal leads up from the dog in the lower right corner to Caspar and the Virgin. The Virgin’s face sits at the mathematical centre of the composition: the vanishing points of the perspectival systems are to the right of her head, near the shepherd who stands behind the donkey. Gossart changed the original brilliant red of his hat to a dull green-brown, presumably to make him less obtrusive.
By 1600 this large painting was perhaps in the abbey of St Adrian at Geraardsbergen (Graamont) in East Flanders. Gossart seems to have painted it for the church between about 1510 and 1515, probably for the funerary chapel of Daniel van Boechout, lord of Boelare near Geraardsbergen. At this time the artist was in the service of Philip of Burgundy, Bishop of Utrecht, with whom von Boechout was closely associated: he was a member of his council, governor of his main residence and an executor of his will. Gossart probably knew von Boechout well: he had stayed in Philip’s properties on his way to Rome in 1508–9. The unusual splendour of the kings’ robes here might even be connected with its original location, as among the relics in the abbey’s collection in 1519 was ‘ a piece of clothing of one of the Three Kings’.
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