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Our Lady sits with the Infant Jesus on her knee. Clothed in a mantle of ultramarine blue, she is the focus of this lavish and incredibly detailed painting. A blue sky is visible through the empty arches of the ruins wherein she sits echoing the blue of her mantle. Joseph remains in the background, as he does in Matthew’s account of the visit, but the artist ensures that he cannot be missed, clothing him in a single garment of bright red. The artist has used the architectural perspective of the ruins to give the painting a sense of great depth and structure. Although about thirty main figures crowd into this space, the position of each figure is carefully considered. Notice that each person strains to see the mother and child receiving gifts from these exotic kings, and yet each seems to know his place. We find our place before Mary kneeling on the broken tiles. As well as kings, there are shepherds in attendance. Two of them look on in adoration from behind the broken fence in the centre and behind them, in the distance the annunciation to the shepherds is in progress. It is the elderly King Caspar who kneels before Our Lady. He has presented a chalice-like vessel containing gold coins, which is itself fashioned of gold. The child holds just one coin in his hand. One thinks of the passage later in the Gospel when Jesus is presented with a coin bearing the image of Caesar. Jesus will then say “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mt 22:21) We can see the goblet’s lid on the ground at Our Lady’s feet. It bears the name “Caspar”.
Beside the lid are his bright red hat and his sceptre, both lying on the ground as if cast aside when he knelt down. A column rises behind him. At the top there is a relief showing the sacrifice of Isaac. Just as the sacrifice of Isaac foreshadowed the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, this crumbling ruin represents the old age, which now gives way to the new age which this child brings. The old King wears garments of rich fabric and fur. Behind him stands the younger king, Melchior, also lavishly dressed. Melchoir holds another incredibly ornate metal receptacle. It contains frankincense. But the most elaborate vessel is the one carried by Balthazar, who stands to the left. As was customary by then, Baltazar is shown as of an African race. But Gossaert surpasses other artists in that he gets his features right. This looks like the portrait of a real African man. Of the three, his clothes are the most lavish and detailed. Around his shoulders there is a white stole. At it’s base it has the words from the Salve Regina woven in blue. His boots are extraordinary. They are made from some sort of very fine translucent material so that his toes are visible. What is quite curious is that Gossaert inserted his own name on the front of this king’s headdress. This is his signature. It also appears on the collar of Baltazar’s servant who is behind him and who is also a man of colour. This servant is distinguished by an elaborate turban of lilac blue. The reason why the artist chooses to place his signature on these two figures remains unknown, but it is clear that of the three kings, Gossaert gives attention to Baltazar. It is thought that this painting might have been an altarpiece for a chapel at the Abbey of Geraardsbergen, which was near Brussels. The relics at the Abbey were listed in 1519 and among them was “a piece of clothing of one of the three Kings”. It may be that the painting was for the chapel that housed this relic and Gossaert’s obvious skill in rendering textiles may be the reason why he was chosen. Of course this was a time and place when textiles were both a source and sign of wealth and status. At a guess, the relic might have been that of the garment worn by Baltazar. If you look online you can see a great deal more detail not just of fabrics and ornate metal work but facial features such as stubble and a hairy wart! There is even an angel hidden among the ruins!
Taken as a whole, the composition divides into an upper and lower register. The mother and child, the kings, their attendants, and the shepherds are all below while above them angels are floating in mid air. At the very top, we see the star which guided the kings to Bethlehem and to the very place where the child was to be found. Yet there is a subtle but definite correspondence between this world and the world above. This can be seen in the way the arrangement of the angels responds to that of the figures below. Most strikingly, Caspar’s kneeling posture is picked up by the angel above him and even by the dog beside him.
If you look closely, you can see that while the apparel of the angels is far simpler than those of the mortals below, our eyes are drawn to their wings. The colouring of each angel’s wings is unique to that angel. In the scene below, different fabrics are positioned to create a kind of visual counterpoint, so that, for example, the red stockings of Melchior pick up on the red of Baltazar’s cloak and both are held in contrast with green. The effect is deployed through the grouping to give the whole a quite controlled balance and harmony. But the artist does not need to show this harmony among the angels. Their is a freedom about each. All but one of them, look to the child on Mary’s knee. We cannot hear the angels sing, but we know that their song is one of enduring and unending praise.
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.