The Three Kings have come to visit the infant Christ in the stable where he was born. They bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and have journeyed from the East (Matthew 2: 10–12). The stable at Bethlehem is attached to the ruins of a great classical building with a triumphal arch in the background. Angels appear in the sky, along the ray of light that falls on Christ. The dominant diagonal, created by this beam of heavenly light, is countered by the diagonal formed by the adoring figures, with the Virgin Mary and Christ Child placed where they intersect.
The picture is dated 1573 and was painted for the church of S. Silvestro in Venice. It was not an altarpiece but a large painting for the wall of the nave beside the altar of the confraternity dedicated to Saint Joseph.
The Three Kings have come to visit the infant Christ in the stable where he was born. They bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and have journeyed from the East (Matthew 2: 10–12). Caspar, the eldest of the three, has precedence and kneels to kiss Christ’s foot in homage. Melchior also kneels, clasping his hands in prayer as his page takes hold of the gift of frankincense. The heads of the two older kings are particularly fine. Melchior’s features are rendered with quick, deft strokes in a single layer of paint. The head of Caspar is as animated in its bold preliminary modelling as in its decisive white impasto. Balthasar, the young dark-skinned king of Saba, waits to kneel, holding his gift of myrrh.
Angels appear in the sky, along the ray of light that falls on Christ. The dominant diagonal, created by this beam of heavenly light, is countered by the diagonal formed by the adoring figures, with the Virgin Mary and Christ Child placed where they intersect. The trussed lambs beside the Virgin are a present from the shepherds, who watch from the ruined building above. The lambs also express the idea that Christ is the ‘Lamb of God,’ who will be sacrificed for the salvation of humankind. The massive classical ruins, against which a lean-to stable has been erected, suggest that the paganism of the past has been superseded by Christianity.
The painting was made for the church of S. Silvestro in Venice. It was not an altarpiece, but was placed to the left of the altar of Saint Joseph. The altar was barely recessed, so the painting did not hang on the side wall of the chapel but in the nave of the church. The practice of completely covering the walls of the nave with painted canvases was not uncommon in Venice during this period – the scuole (‘confraternities’) were often the patrons of these pictures. The altar of Saint Joseph was the responsibility of the Scuola di San Giuseppe (Confraternity of Saint Joseph), which probably commissioned this painting. It is therefore surprising that Joseph, positioned behind the Virgin, is not more central in the composition. He may have been placed on the right in anticipation of viewers approaching the painting from the left.
The composition seems to have been very carefully worked out before painting began, as few changes were made. The Virgin’s pose is identical to that in Veronese’s Adoration of the Kings for S. Corona, Vicenza, although the folds of her garments are different, meaning that both paintings were probably worked up from the same small drawing. The two pictures may have been painted at the same time in Veronese’s workshop. There is a compositional drawing for the National Gallery’s Adoration in the Teylers Museum, Haarlem.
The painting is inscribed on the lowest stone step with the date 1573 in Roman numerals. Veronese completed several other large paintings in 1573, including the Feast in the House of Levi for SS. Giovanni e Paolo and the Madonna del Rosario for S. Pietro Martire (both now in the Accademia, Venice). While this would suggest that Veronese’s assistants helped execute the work, their contributions are not immediately visible, likely integrated seamlessly into the whole by Paolo.
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