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Panel - The Adoration of the Magi (lower part of a rood screen)
  • The Adoration of the Magi (lower part of a rood screen)
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The Adoration of the Magi (lower part of a rood screen)

  • Object:

    Panel

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1520 (made)

  • Artist/Maker:

    Unknown

  • Materials and Techniques:

    Oil & gilt on oak

  • Credit Line:

    Given by Viscount Lascelles

  • Museum number:

    W.54-1928

  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

The Gospel of St Matthew records the story of wise men guided by a brilliant star to Bethlehem. They presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child. The story gained enormous popularity in the early centuries of the Christian church, and still exerts a powerful influence today.

The magi ('wise men') were traditionally astrologers of the Persian court and priests of the cult of Mithras, but were later redefined as kings, based on a similar story of royal gift-giving in the Old Testament (Psalms 72:10). In the early Middle Ages (by about 750), they were given names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, and were said to come from the kingdoms of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba (Seba was thought to be an ancient name for Ethiopia). From about the 15th century, Balthazar, the black magus/king associated with Ethiopia became a familiar figure in European images of the Adoration of Christ at his birth. The three magi/kings were also depicted as representatives of the three known continents - Europe, Asia and Africa (America only became known to Europeans at the end of the 15th century), or the three ages of life - old age, middle age and youth.

The painted composition of the Adoration of the Magi on this woodwork closely resembles representations of the subject in three Devon churches, but it is not known from which church this panel came, presumably along with the rest of the rood screen of which it formed a part.

Physical description

Section of the lower part of a rood-screen, consisting of five vertical boards (joined at V joints) forming the flat, black ground, set in a framework, and with applied carved and pierced tracery: above, trefoils painted alternately red and green and gilded; below: four quatrefoils, with a central gilded irregular quatrefoil. On three sides it is framed by mouldings with twisted corn-ear motif (also known as Aaron's rod motif).

Painted in oils and gilded representing the Adoration of the Magi, arranged as a continuous composition on a black background; from left to right : (1) The Virgin seated holding the Infant, and with her left hand raised (possibly pointing at the star and acknowledging the kneeling magus); (2) a bearded magus kneeling and offering a cup(with his right hand), and indicating Jesus with his left, with his crown before him on the ground, and the star above; (3) another magus with hat/crown, standing, facing backwards to the third magus, and pointing with his right hand towards Jesus, and holding a covered cup in his left hand; (4) the black magus with hat/crown, standing and holding a boat-shaped censer in his left hand, and with his right hand raised.

Dress (comments by Susan North, FTF dept.)
The younger king on the far right is dressed in fashionable clothing of the period. The jacket or jerkin, worn over a doublet (which is underneath and not visible) with close-fitting, slashed trunk hose, and square-toed shoes are fashionable for the 1st quarter of the 16th century. He’s also wearing a fashionable ‘Milan bonnet’ under his crown. The other two, older kings are dressed in gowns appropriate for royalty; one is in purple – the colour associated with royalty – and the other may be an attempt to show a fabric woven with gold thread. However, it would be very difficult to date these, as they appear ‘generically’ royal, rather than relating to any specific royal regalia. The older king in the middle does have the fashionable square-toed shoes and looks to be wearing a turban (or English interpretation thereof), suggesting Eastern dress.

Place of Origin

England (made)

Date

ca. 1520 (made)

Artist/maker

Unknown

Materials and Techniques

Oil & gilt on oak

Dimensions

Height: 93 cm, Width: 115 cm, Depth: 14.6 cm

Object history note

Given by the Rt. Hon. Viscount Lascelles K.G.D.S.C., Chesterfield House, Mayfair, London. 'Split, pieces missing'. RP 28/5603. Viewed by Eric Maclagan at the Sackville Gallery, with the Brothers Rothschild. 31/5/1928 where their Devon origin was recognised.

These panels were discussed in a notice by Borenius and Tristram (T. Borenius and E.W.Tristram, 'A Early English Picture', Apollo, March, 1928, 125-26) who pointed out that the composition closely resembles representations of the same subject on the rood screens at Plymtree and Buckland-in-the-Moor, Devon.

The treatment of a composition in a frieze-like manner where the action of one figure follows on from another occurs only rarely on East Anglian screens. But in Devon it is characteristic. The 'Adoration of the Magi' can be found in three surviving Devon screens, at Buckland-in-the-Moor, Plymtree and Ugborough. The composition at Buckland is very close to that on the museum's panels. In the screen at Plymtree the scheme is again similar, although the crown on the ground in front of the first king is omitted and the frankincense container in the right hand figure is not boat-shaped. According to Keyser the treatment of the subject at Ugborough is also close (C.E. Keyser, a List of Buildings in Great Britain and Ireland having Mural and other painted Decorations, 3rd ed. , London, 1883, 199). An indirect but recognisable stylistic debt to the figure sculpture on the west-front of Exeter Cathedral has been adduced for this group of late Gothic panel painting in Devon (W.G. Constable, 'Some Devonshire Rood Screen Paintings', Connoisseur, LXXX, April 1928, 195-205, and LXXXI, May 1928, 3-9).

Michael Ohajuru (in a student essay on this panel, 2008?, copy in dept. catalogue) compares it with those in situ at Buckland-in-the-Moor, Plymtree and Ugborough churches, Devon, which all show broadly similar mouldings with twisted corn-ear motif. He notes the closer similarities with Ugborough in terms of dress, colouring, posture, gaze and gestures, and suggests a common workshop origin. The third magus on the Ugborough panel appears however to have been replaced.

Paint analysis was carried out by Eddie Sinclair and Lucy Wrapson, 2014 (a copy of the report held by FTF dept.) The report notes that the style and techniques employed conform to a Devon origin, based on the authors' analyses of about 20% of surviving polychrome Devon screens. It has a ground comprising red lead and red earth, and also containing silicates; pigments include azurite and indigo, synthetic copper green, vermillion, red lead, iron oxide red and red lake, char black, chalk and lead white; mordants are yellow ochre based; gold leaf was used. There are differences in the build up between the figure panels and the framework polychromy: for example, the figurative panels do not employ gilding, but the framework does. It suggests that the painting (but not construction) may have been carried out by the same workshop responsible for the Ugborough screen, and that the painting techniques differ from those used on the stylistically similar screen at Buckland on the Moor.

Historical context note

The Gospel of St Matthew records the story of wise men guided by a brilliant star to Bethlehem. They presented gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child. The story gained enormous popularity in the early centuries of the Christian church, and still exerts a powerful influence today.

The magi ('wise men') were traditionally astrologers of the Persian court and priests of the cult of Mithras, but were later redefined as kings, based on a similar story of royal gift-giving in the Old Testament (Psalms 72:10). In the early Middle Ages (by about 750), they were given names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, and were said to come from the kingdoms of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba (Seba was thought to be an ancient name for Ethiopia). From about the 15th century, Balthazar, the black magus/king associated with Ethiopia became a familiar figure in European images of the Adoration of Christ at his birth. The three magi/kings were also depicted as representatives of the three known continents - Europe, Asia and Africa (America only became known to Europeans at the end of the 15th century), or the three ages of life - old age, middle age and youth.

A legend states that St Helena, mother of the first Christian emperor Constantine, discovered the bodies of the wise men/kings in India in the in the 330s and took them to Constantinople (present day Istanbul). Her son gave them to the Bishop of Milan. In the 1160s the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick I Barbarossa, brought their bodies to Cologne in Germany. Ever since, the wise men/kings have been especially venerated in Cologne. Their relics are contained in a shrine in Cologne Cathedral. On their feast day, 6 January (Epiphany), thousands of pilgrims visit the shrine.

The Adoration of the Magi was the visit of the three wise men or kings to Bethlehem to pay homage to the infant Jesus. They depict one of the kings as a black African.
The earliest known example of a black king may be represented in a wall painting of about 1360 in the Emmaus monastery in Prague. It is certain that by the beginning of the 15th century some European artists had begun to depict one of the kings as black rather than white. The Magi had become representatives of the three continents of the Old World - Europe, Asia and Africa (America only became known to Europeans in 1492). The Magi can also represent the three ages of life - youth, maturity and old age.
The black Magus was instantly recognisable by his black skin but he was also often distinguished from the others by his flamboyant dress. Instead of a crown, artists sometimes gave him a turban, white bandeau and earring. This reflects the influence of heraldic moors' head devices, or the jewellery and clothing worn by African domestic slaves and servants in wealthy European households. The 'Africanness' of the king was sometimes further emphasised by the fact that he carried an oliphant, a decorative horn carved from ivory.

Although the appearance of the black king may have been partly inspired by real Africans living in Europe, his look was mainly a mixture of European ideas of the exotic. The black king gave artists an opportunity to depict a lavishly dressed figure in a religious scene, a role that probably ensured his continued popularity in European art.
The African king is usually depicted as the beardless, youthful king furthest from the Virgin and Child, sometimes being shown the way by the middle king, Melchior. His position and age reflected European notions of Africa as the youngest of the three civilisations in their search for Christianity.

The black king also symbolised the idea that Christianity appealed to all humanity, even the most foreign and remote people. The blackness of his skin showed that he was from a distant land, although even there people had accepted the truth of Christ's message.
Although the black king was fairly common in Northern European art by the end of the 15th century, it was less frequent in Florentine Renaissance art. Central Italian artists were among the last to adopt the image, though black attendants are sometimes included in the retinue of three white Magi.

Descriptive line

Panel, The Adoration of the Magi, made ca. 1520

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Charles Tracy, English Medieval Furniture and Woodwork (London, 1988), cat no. 102, colour plate 7
'Four panels, the lower part of a rood screen, painted in oils and gilt, within a framework carved with conventional Gothic foliage and set in cusped arches of ogee form. They represent the Adoration of the Magi, arranged as a continuous composition; from left to right: (1) The Virgin seated holding the Infant Christ. (2) The Magi kneeling and offering a cup with his crown before him on the ground. (3) Another of the Magi. (4) The Moorish King. Above the arches trefoils painted alternately red and green, below four quatrefoils, similarly treated, each containing carved foliage gilt (COL. PL.7).
West Country
Oak. About 1520
Given By Viscount Lascelles
94 X 115 X 14.6 cm
Mus. No. W.54-1928
These panels were discussed in a notice by Borenius and Tristram (T. Borenius & E. W. Tristram, ‘A Early English Picture’, Apollo, March, 1928, p.125-26) who pointed out that the composition closely resembles representations of the same subject on the rood screens at Plymtree and Buckland-in-the-Moor, Devon.
The treatment of a composition in a frieze-like manner where the action of one figure follows on from another occurs only rarely on East Anglian screens. But in Devon it is characteristic. The ‘Adoration of the Magi’ can be found in three surviving Devon screens, at Buckland-in-the-Moor, Plymtree and Ugborough. The composition at Buckland is very close to that on the museum’s panels (FIG.29). In the screen at Plymtree the scheme is again similar, although the crown on the ground in front of the first king is omitted and the frankincense container in the right hand figure is not boat shaped. According to Keyser the treatment of the subject at Ugborough is also close (C. E. Keyser, A list of Buildings in Great Britain and Ireland having Mural and other Painted Decorations, 3rd ed., 1883, p.199). An indirect but recognisable stylistic debt to the figure sculpture on the west-front of Exeter Cathedral has been adduced for this group of late Gothic panel painting in Devon (W. G. Constable, ’Some Devonshire Rood Screen Paintings’, Connoisseur, LXXX, April 1928, p.195-205 and LXXXI, May 1928, p.3-9).'

Spike Bucklow, Richard Marks and Lucy Wrapson (Eds.), The Art and Science of the Church Screen in Medieval Europe (2017), chapter 7, The polychromy of Devon Screens: preliminary analytical results, by Lucy Wrapson and Eddie Sinclair p.150ff

Production Note

Probably Devon

Materials

Oak

Techniques

Painting; Gilding

Categories

Religion; Christianity; Woodwork; Black History; Black History

Collection

Furniture and Woodwork Collection

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