Botticelli painted at least six scenes of the Adoration of the Kings. This, one of his most expansive and ambitious, is painted in a circular format called a tondo. The figures and animals in the outer circle face inwards to pay respect to the Christ Child, inviting the viewer to do the same. Botticelli has raised the Virgin and Child upon a natural rocky platform, ensuring the viewer looks up towards them in reverence.
A makeshift roof has been inserted within the central arch so that it doubles as the humble stable where Christ was born. Crumbling classical architecture was a common feature in religious paintings in the Renaissance period, symbolising how Christianity had surpassed pagan religion and culture.
The picture may have belonged to the Pucci, a Florentine family. It might have been a tribute to the ruling Medici family, who identified strongly with the kings and owned two very large and elaborate paintings of the subject themselves.
This is one of at least six scenes of the Adoration of the Kings painted by Botticelli. One of his most expansive and ambitious, it addresses the challenges of painting in a circular format called a tondo. Often elaborately framed, tondi were regarded as the most lavish type of picture.
The Adoration was an extremely popular subject in Florence, as the event was celebrated with great pomp and splendour at the feast of Epiphany – there were even processions through the city streets. Earlier depictions by Botticelli (such as a panel he made with Filippino Lippi) are rectangular, reflecting the movement of the procession towards the infant Christ. Later, pictures showing the holy family at the centre, as here, became more common.
In this painting the procession converges upon the holy figures from both sides, emphasising the symmetry of the work. There are two layers of the entourage, with the outer circle arranged as a semicircle around the lower edge of the picture. Most of the figures and animals face inwards to pay respect to the Christ Child, inviting the viewer to do the same. The inner circle is separated from this group, raised up on a natural rocky platform with the Virgin Mary and infant Christ. Although further back than the foreground figures, and therefore smaller, Botticelli has ensured that the viewer looks up towards them in reverence. The king kneeling deeply in front of the Virgin and Child shows the degree of respect we ought to pay them, as well as offering us a clear view of Christ.
This careful and complex arrangement of the figures, who nonetheless appear to be gathered in natural groups, contrasts with the more obvious and striking compositional device at the centre of the image: the lofty ruined arches of a once imposing piece of classical building. A makeshift roof has been inserted within the central arch so that it doubles as the humble stable in which Christ was born. Crumbling classical architecture was a common feature in religious paintings in the Renaissance period; it fed an elite intellectual taste for classical antiquity and also delivered a message about how Christianity had surpassed pagan religion and culture (note how the keystone of the central arch has become dislodged). Likewise, the enormous peacock perching on a fragment of marble symbolises the eternity of the soul, made possible through the incarnation of God in Christ.
The picture may be that seen by Vasari, the sixteenth-century biographer of the artists, in the house of the Florentine Pucci family, who commissioned The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian from Antonio and Piero del Pollaiuolo. It might have been a tribute to the ruling Medici family, who identified strongly with the magi and owned two very large and elaborate paintings of the subject themselves.
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