The Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli is one of the highlights of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. Painted between 1475-78, it’s the work that propelled the young artist into the Medici circle. if you look closely, you’ll discover that many figures in this religious scene are none other than members of the Medici family.
While the Holy Family sits humbly amid an ancient ruin, all around them the three kings and other figures seem focussed on everything but the Christ child. But a light coming from above and the peacock, symbol of immortality, remind us that this is very much a sacred scene.
Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli – what is this painting about?
It could be seen as a bold, almost sacrilegious act, to feature oneself in sacred art. But it wasn’t unusual at the time, when notable citizens and wealthy patrons often used to make an appearance amongst saints and Holy figures. In this painting we find a few members of the all-powerful Florentine family, the Medici. Cosimo the Elder is the one depicted as the eldest king, who’s almost touching the feet of the Christ Child. Right at the centre kneels his son, the royally dressed and red-cloaked Piero the Gouty. Next to him is his brother Giovanni dressed in white.
Critics don’t completely agree about the identities of some of the other individuals. The man standing to the right in a red-trimmed black robe may be either Lorenzo the Magnificent, the son of Piero and de facto ruler of Florence at the time the painting was done, or his younger brother Giuliano. Some recognise Lorenzo in the young man standing proudly to the far left, with the poet Poliziano leaning on him, and Pico della Mirandola to one side.
The artist and the commissioner
In this busy and crowded scene, the artist himself is present. Sandro Botticelli’s (1445-1510) self portrait is almost a signature, on the right-hand side. He’s proudly looking out towards the audience. The painting functioned a little like a business card, a way to show the Medici and the world what he was capable of. And it worked. Botticelli went on to become one of the favourite artists of the Medici, who later commissioned his most celebrated works, “Spring” and “Birth of Venus”.
It was Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama who commissioned this particular painting. A wealthy agent of the bankers’ guild to which the Medici also belonged, some see him depicted in the old white haired man on the right side of the painting. He seems to be pointing at himself, as if to say “I’m the one who paid for this”. The painting was originally an altarpiece for his chapel in S.M. Novella Church in Florence.
It was common practice for wealthy members of society to finance art to embellish their city. In the case of bankers it was also a way of ‘purifying’ the money spent on work of dubious moral value.
The style of the “Adoration of the Magi”
The ancient ruins in the background represent Rome and the ancient pagan world, crumbling down while christianity rises. This painting is the closest to realism that Botticelli comes. The focus of the scene is within a triangular area (formed by the holy family and one of the adoring magi) while all the previous paintings of this subject were all painted in a linear, horizontal composition.
While here Botticelli proves to be a technically gifted portrait painter, masterfully depicting the different poses and expressions, in the higher part of the painting we can see some defects in the composition, namely that the Holy Family is much smaller compared to the other protagonists, and seem almost detached from the rest.
Leonardo Da Vinci will go on to use this as a reference for his own “Adoration of the Magi” (1481), in which we see resemblances in the composition. This painting is also part of the Uffizi’s collection.
Check out some of the most famous paintings to be found at the Uffizi in Florence.
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Adoration of the Magi and the Medici
The Adoration of the Magi was a very popular subject in Florentine art in the 15th century. There was a long tradition of paintings with this subject (from Gentile di Fabriano to Mantegna and Beato Angelico) and there was also a close connection between this biblical episode and the Medici family, that had one room in their palace Palazzo Medici Riccardi decorated with a large fresco of the “Procession of the Magi”.
The Medici were in fact important members of the “Confraternita dei Magi”, an association that in the 15th century used to put on an event on the 6th January, the day of Epiphany. Wealthy citizens would dress up as oriental kings and parade through the streets of Florence, re-enacting the day when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem to see the new born Christ. That tradition, suppressed in 1492 by Savonarola, began again in 1997 and happens every year in Florence.