Remembering the Sacred at Christmas: ‘The Adoration of the Magi’

Reaching Within: What traditional art offers the heart
December 20, 2020 Updated: December 23, 2020

It’s easy to forget the purpose of Christmas with the hustle and bustle that comes with holiday shopping. This holiday season, I wish to use Jan Gossaert’s painting “The Adoration of the Magi” to remind us why Christmas is so special. 

The Birth of Jesus

“The Adoration of the Magi,” also known as “The Adoration of the Kings,” depicts the biblical story presented in Matthew 2 in which three wise men, guided by a star, travel from the East to see the newly born Jesus Christ. 

On their way, the three wise men ask where they can find the newborn who was prophesied to be king, for they journey to give gifts to and worship the young one.

King Herod hears that the wise men are searching for Jesus, and he is troubled. He believes that his power is threatened and gathers all of his chief priests and scribes together to ask them where Jesus will be born. They tell him that it was prophesied that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. 

After hearing this, Herod sends the three wise men into Bethlehem and orders them to search for the newborn under the false premise that he will worship him also. The three wise men take Herod’s order and depart. 

As they leave Herod, the wise men are led by the star again, and they all rejoice. The star leads them to the place that holds Jesus. They see Mary and Jesus and fall down to worship them, and they give gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

After celebrating the birth of Jesus, the three wise men sleep and have a dream that warns them to not return to Herod. Upon awakening, they take another route home. 

Mary’s husband, Joseph, is also warned in a dream to take the newborn Jesus and flee into Egypt until Herod dies. 

Herod becomes angry when he realizes that the wise men aren’t returning. He still doesn’t know the prophesied king’s location. So Herod decides to have all of the little boys in Bethlehem murdered, and he causes great pain until his death.

Upon Herod’s death, and upon the advice of an angel and the warning of God, Joseph and his family travel to Nazareth and dwell there.

‘The Adoration of the Magi’

Gossaert’s “The Adoration of the Magi” is a complex painting with plenty of symbolism

Mary and Jesus are the focal point and are located in the center of the lower half of the composition. Mary sits in the middle of what appears to be the ruins of a once great place, and far in the distance appears a great town in which sheep are shepherded. 

Jan_Gossaert_city in the background
Sheep and a great town in the background, shown in a detail of “Adoration of the Magi.” (PD-US)

Mary is wearing a blue robe and holds the baby Jesus on her lap. To the right of Mary and Jesus is one of the three wise men, Caspar, who is offering a gift of gold coins in a golden goblet to Jesus. Jesus looks at Caspar and takes one of the coins in his left hand. 

Jan_Gossaert_Jesus and cup
Jesus takes a gold coin, in a detail of “Adoration of the Magi.” (PD-US)

Caspar has taken off his hat out of respect. The lid to the goblet is next to his hat and is inscribed with Caspar’s name [L]E ROII IASPAR in ornate, gold lettering at the base of the lid near the rim.   

Jan_Gossaert_red hat and lid
King Caspar’s red hat inscribed with his name, in a detail of “Adoration of the Magi.” (PD-US)

The second wise man, Melchior, is standing behind Caspar with his attendants. Melchior is waiting to present his gift of frankincense, kept in the elaborate golden vessel he holds in his hand. 

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King Melchior with his attendants, behind Caspar, in a detail of “Adoration of the Magi.” (PD-US)

The third wise man, Balthasar, is on the left side of Mary and Jesus. Balthasar is also surrounded by his attendants. His hat is inscribed with both his name, BALTAZAR, and the artist’s name, GOSSAERT. He carries a golden vessel containing the gift of myrrh, which he waits to present to Jesus.

The third wise man, Balthasar, is on the left side of Mary and Jesus. Balthasar, like Melchior, is also surrounded by his attendants. Balthasar’s crown is inscribed with both his name, BALTAZAR, and the artist’s name, GOSSAERT. The Balthasar’s name is written in ornate, gold lettering with a red background at the very top of his crown. GOSSAERT is also in ornate, gold lettering with a red background on the fabric hanging from Balthasar’s crown. This king carries a golden vessel containing the gift of myrrh that he waits to present to Jesus.

Jan_Gossaert_King with gift and Joseph
King Balthasar wearing his inscribed crown, in a detail of “Adoration of the Magi.” (PD-US)

Balthasar also has a fringed stole that is inscribed with the opening words of a prayer to Mary: “Salve regina misericordiae” [Hail Holy Queen, Mother of Mercy].

A fringed stole embroidered with a prayer, in a detail of “Adoration of the Magi.” (PD-US)

Joseph is shown dressed in a red robe, standing in the background between Mary and Balthasar. Joseph looks up at the nine angels floating above. The nine angels may represent the nine orders of angels. 

All of the angels but one have their hands clasped, as if they are praying to honor the sacred event. The angel who does not hold its hands in prayer instead holds a scroll that reads “Gloria in excelsis deo” [Glory to God in the Highest].

Off in the distance in the upper center of the composition are a bright star and a dove. The star may potentially represent God or the star that guided the wise men to Jesus. The dove typically represents the Holy Ghost. 

Jan_Gossaert_angel with scroll and star
An angel holds a scroll, in a detail of “Adoration of the Magi.” (PD-US)

Remembering a Sacred Christmas

Gossaert does a great job of packing a lot into this composition. He successfully tells an unfolding story with a still image.

Gossaert depicts Mary and Jesus sitting in the middle of ruins, with a great town in the background. Does the ruinous city represent the moral law of the Old Testament—the law that Jesus, through his heart, mind, and actions, is to fulfill? Is this why there are sheep being shepherded in the background to the beautiful city? If so, does the beautiful city represent heaven? Or are the shepherds leaving the city so they also can witness the sacred event?

The three wise men bring their gifts to celebrate the birth of Jesus. The gold is for tribute, the frankincense represents sacrifice, and the myrrh is for burying the dead. These represent Jesus as king, God, and man.

Joseph looks to the heavens as if he’s receiving the message from the angels to take Jesus from this place in order to avoid the dangers of King Herod.

What’s most significant, however, is how both heaven and earth have come to witness the sacred event. People are coming from all over the world to see the divine manifest itself on earth and to pay the appropriate respect. 

Even all of heaven has come to witness: the nine angels—which, if they do represent the nine orders of angels, would include all of God’s help in heaven; the dove as the Holy Ghost; and the star, which may represent God. Everything has stopped to witness the sacrality of this event.

This holiday season, fraught as the year has been, can still offer us human comforts: for some, the exchanging of gifts, the sharing of food and traditions, and the gathering with loved ones or at least touching base with them. But maybe it also offers us a chance to appreciate the divine here on earth. 

Maybe we can recapture the deeper meaning of Christmas beyond buying things that we can’t take with us upon death. By simply stopping and taking a moment in our hearts and minds, we can pay homage to the sacred and remember that the divine manifests in our midst on earth—sometimes when and where we do not expect it. With this recognition, maybe our minds will quiet, our expectations of others will diminish, and our hearts will be full of kindness and joy.

Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions I explore in my series “Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.”

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist and is a doctoral candidate at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).