At the end of their long journey, three magnificently dressed kings offer gifts to the Christ Child, who is seated on the Virgin’s lap. Behind them, their retinue winds its way through the hilly landscape from Jerusalem, visible on a distant hilltop. This is the Adoration of the Kings (Matthew 2: 11), when three kings followed a star from the East to find the infant Christ in a stable in Bethlehem.
This altarpiece is the largest and most impressive of the National Gallery’s collection of paintings made in Lombardy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The scene is carefully structured to focus attention on the gifts and Christ, but anecdotal details bring the procession to life. At the back, two men – one wears a furry cap, the other a hood – hold falcons. On the right, a young page on a grey horse has stuck his feet into the stirrup leathers as he can't reach the stirrups.
At the end of their long journey, three kings offer gifts to the Christ Child, who is seated on the Virgin Mary’s lap. Their retinue winds its way through the hilly landscape from Jerusalem, visible on a distant hilltop. The kings‘ gorgeous clothes, gleaming golden crowns and expensive gifts make a vivid contrast with the crumbling walls and ruined roof of the stable which houses the holy family.
This is the Adoration of the Kings. It’s not first-century Palestine we see here, however. The stable is a crumbling classical temple – perhaps symbolising the pagan religion which Christianity replaced – and the rolling hills and towns are those of Renaissance Europe. Anecdotal details bring the procession to life. At the back of the crowd, two men – one wears a furry cap, the other a hood – have falcons on their wrists. On the right, a young page on a grey horse has stuck his feet into the stirrup leathers as he can’t reach the stirrups.
This altarpiece is the largest and most impressive of the National Gallery’s exceptional collection of paintings made in fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Lombardy, which includes works by Cima da Conegliano, Andrea Solario and Giovanni Antonio Boltraffio. We don't know where or when it was made, or who for, but the design and the sumptuous decoration recall works by Gentile da Fabriano and Jacopo Bellini then to be seen in Brescia. Many elements derive from da Fabriano’s famous Adoration, made in 1423 for the Strozzi chapel in Florence, or perhaps from an earlier version painted by him for the Chapel of the Broletto, Brescia.
But Vincenzo Foppa was also clearly aware of the latest developments in Netherlandish painting. The whole scene is carefully structured to focus attention on the gifts and Christ, with strong verticals formed by the standing king and grey horse on the right and the upright figure of the Virgin on the left, extended upwards by the pillar behind her. A series of right-hand curves are made by the back of the king who kneels, the king behind him with the red cloak and the hill above them. These are echoed by the curve of the grey horse’s neck and balanced by the curve of the arch in the centre. Recession is suggested by the diminishing hilltop buildings and the zigzagging road, but also by the gradual fading of colour. Strong blues and reds are used in the foreground, with soft greens and browns for the landscape, fading eventually to distant blue hills. Ruined architecture, sumptuous outfits and a geometrical construction also feature in Netherlandish paintings of the subject, such as Jean Gossart’s later Adoration of the Kings.
Technical investigation has told us a lot about the flexibility of Foppa’s techniques, and the variety of his methods. Some figures he drew freehand, but he also used pounced cartoons for many of the heads. The picture is executed in both oil and egg tempera. Some gilded areas – the crowns, collars and gifts – are built up in pastiglia covered with burnished gold.
Originally the painting would have been even more colourful. The Virgin’s cloak would have been bright blue but it has lost its upper layer of ultramarine pigment. Some of the faces have taken on a silvery-grey tint as the red lake pigment has faded.
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