January 4th 2020

“The Adoration of the Kings”, Jacopo Bassano, 1542, National Galleries Of Scotland.  We see the Holy Family with their haloes on the left. A beam of light from the star can just be seen above them.  These are the only visual elements of the supernatural realm. Everything else is of the  natural visible order.  The kings greet the Holy Family.  But this is only the left hand half of the painting.   The other half is given over to a crowd of people who seem indifferent to the Holy Family.  Taken as a whole, this is a very beautiful painting. Blocks of colour and texture are arranged carefully across the surface so that the eye is not dazzled or overwhelmed.  In fact, the array of colour focuses the eye on the young man. His face is placed in the exact centre of the work.  He is wearing a beautiful well tailored garment, striped in green and gold, which, it must be admitted, is perfect for someone with his colouring. This young patrician has exquisite good taste in clothes.   He has good manners too.  He bends his knee to bow before the mother of Christ.  But he does not bow his head. He keeps his eyes fixed upon her.  The studio ledger of the Bassani workshop shows that this was painted when Jacob Bassano was 32.  Having finished his training in Venice, he had returned to work in the family business at Bassano del Grappa. In this work, Bassano follows the established tradition that the Magi of Mathew’s Gospel were three kings, one from each of the three known continents, and so representing all the nations of the earth.  Tradition also made them young, middle-aged and old so that they represented the three ages of man. You might think of the three generations of the Florentine Medici who were Botticelli’s Magi in his treatment of the subject around 1475. But here’s the thing:  the young man does not fit with such a scheme.  He is entirely different to the other two kings who are pretty much what you would expect.  For one thing, he is a bit too young and a bit too good looking.  His handsome face dominates the whole picture.  After all, the painting is surely not about him, but about Christ.  Each king brings one of Matthew’s three named gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh.  They are usually offered in that order. But here the young man offers his gift first.  It may even be the gold.   While it is true that Bassano borrowed several elements in this picture but the young man is not borrowed. He is different. It looks like a portrait inserted into another painting about something else.  If this is a portrait, then the two page boys behind might be his sons.  Bassano copied but reversed this composition from a fresco of the same subject of 1520 in the Malchiostro Chapel in the nearby Treviso Cathedral, which was by the artist Pordenone.  In both works, the older king leans forward in adoration. In both too,  a servant with a rather athletic rump leans the other way.  The buildings on the upper left are lifted stone by stone from those in a popular woodcut by Dürer.  There the Virgin is seated within an enclosure. Oddly, Bassano has her sitting on a wall, which may be the boundary of an enclosure.  The crowd on the right is very similar to another crowd in a popular engraving of 1517 by Agostino Veneziano, which was after Raphael’s famous depiction of  Mary’s suffering as she watched her son fall under the weight of the cross. This is not the only echo of the Passion.  Bassano places a freshly cut tree stump directly beneath the child.  It was a standard reminder of the Passion.  The fig tree which grows up beside Mary may also be an allusion to Jesus on the cross, but, equally, it may signify the fruit of Mary’s womb. The delicate columbine (from the Latin  columba meaning “dove”), or aquilegia, growing at Mary’s feet is often used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit.  Here symbols of both the Incarnation and the Passion are effortlessly interwoven for those who have eyes to see them. Anyone from the Veneto would recognise the landscape and the distant buildings in the background as typical of the artist’s native Bassano del Grappa.  They can be found in several of his other works, not least in his beautiful  “Flight into Egypt” of 1544 (See my discussion of it last week at www.scotland.op.org/news).  You can see that Bassano used the same models for the Holy Family in both paintings.   It has been said that,  rather than forming an enclosure for the Virgin, the projecting wall divides the people into faith on the left and indifference on the right.  But if so, then our young man has a foot in each half.  Notice how the three gifts are positioned closely together between him and the Holy Family.  The eye is led from this young patrician to the gifts and to their hands.  What is extraordinary is that the young man’s hand almost touches that of Mary. This is very odd. His gaze may indeed be one of reverence, respect, and admiration,  but is it adoration? Compare him with the old man, who is no doubt stiff and sore from his journey, but manages to support himself with one arm and raise his gift with the other.  His aches and pains are forgotten. He is lost in adoration.  A recently discovered ledger from the Bassani workshop records this commission and the deposit for it in 1542. It was paid by a Venetian patrician called Jacopo Ghisi.  There was such a man with that name  who was living in Venice at that time.  He would have been 27 in 1542.  However, the ledgers also record that in that same year the sum was returned to him.  It is not known why.  What Bassano painted was a young man showing great deference but clearly lacking something. Perhaps it is humility?  With one hand he offers the gift,  but the other hand remains on the hilt of his sword. He does not kneel, but rather bows as a courtier might do before royalty.  He is both of the scene and yet not of it. Bassano puts him at the centre so that we don’t miss any of it and, in a way, the whole painting revolves around him.  We see the gift in his hands but we can surmise what he lacks in his heart. On the left edge of the painting, you can see the heads of an ox and an ass.  It is thought that the ox represents the Gentile world’s recognition of Christ as Saviour and, the ass, the Hebrew world’s failure to do so. Maybe this is what the painting is about: the recognition of Christ,  not simply as an important future king but as the Saviour of all, and the rendering to him, not just of sincere and conventional allegiance, but of true worship.  


Edinburgh Catholic Chaplaincy

The Catholic Chaplaincy serves the students and staff of the University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh Napier University and Queen Margaret University.

The Catholic Chaplaincy is also a parish of the Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh (the Parish of St Albert the Great) and all Catholic students and staff are automatically members of this parish.

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