Adoración de los Reyes Magos (1619)

Velázquez, Diego (1599-1660)

Adoración de los Reyes Magos (Adoration of the Magi)
Oil on canvas, 203 x 125 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

Painted in Seville in 1619, The Adoration of the Magi is the largest of Velázquez‘s early works and, together with Saint Ildefonso receiving the Chasuble, the one with the most figures, making it one of the artist’s most ambitious compositions to date in his career. Both the above characteristics suggests that it was painted for a religious interior, very probably one associated with the Jesuits, given that the work’s first documented location was the novitiate of San Luis in Seville. After the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain in 1767 the painting passed to the Escuela de Nobles Artes in Seville. This probable origin also tallies with the fact that Velázquez‘s father-in-law Francisco Pacheco maintained good relations with the Jesuits. It also helps to explain the artist’s interest in lifelikeness and communicative immediacy, which reflects the pedagogical bent of a religious Order always concerned to exploit the devotional and didactic potential of language, while the figures are based on real models. Serrera described this painting as a family portrait given that some figures have features of the artist’s own family. The king with the white beard on the far left is a portrait of Francisco Pacheco: the face is comparable to his self-portrait in the Last Judgment (Castres, Musée Goya) and to his portrait by Velázquez in the Museo del Prado. Similarly, the features of Saint Joseph and the kneeling king in the foreground are notably close to those of Saint John on Patmos (London, National Gallery) or to the supposed youthful self-portrait in the Prado, while the face of the youth in the background recalls the faces of some of the figures in the artist’s earlier genre scenes such as Old Woman frying Eggs. Finally, King Balthasar also seems to be based on a real person, while with regard to the Virgin and Child it has been pointed out on various occasions that Velázquez‘s only daughter was born in 1619. While it may seem surprising, the inclusion of portraits in an Adoration of the Magi is compatible with the traditions of that iconography. There are numerous examples in western art, some of them well known, such as Botticelli‘s version. This practice can be related to the nature of this biblical episode, which affirms the universal character of the Good News. Velázquez echoes that tradition here, taking it to its furthest consequences by placing an unusual emphasis on the figures that are portraits. In narrative terms this is a simple image, lacking the complexity of other Sevillian works by the artist. The subject is immediately recognisable and is described in a direct manner so that the viewer easily identifies the episode and the key figures. The relationship established between the figures and the setting is markedly compatible with Velázquez‘s compositional methods during his Sevillian period and also recalls that used for sculptural altarpieces. The bodies of the figures almost fill the entire composition and are located very close to the picture plane, giving them a pronounced expressivity and monumentality. Compositions of this type encouraged devotional concentration. Together with this unity the painting offers enormous variety with regard to the figure types, their actions and the chromatic range, which although it makes extensive use of ochres and blacks also includes extremely beautiful reds, whites and blues. This combination of monumentality, beauty and expressive concentration, in addition to the skill with which Velázquez represented the individual expressions on the faces, makes The Adoration of the Magi one of the masterpieces of the artist’s early period. It is in many respects comparable to The Waterseller of Seville, in which the figures also fill the pictorial surface while the artist makes comparable use of the spatial planes (Text from Portús, J.: Velázquez, Kunsthistorisches MuseumVienna, 2014, p. 291).