Adorazione dei Magi (c.1480)

Lippi, Filippino (1457-1504)

Adorazione dei Magi (The Adoration of the Kings)
Oil with some egg tempera on wood, 57.5 x 85.7 cm
National GalleryLondon

A ruinous chapel-like building stands in a rocky landscape. The Virgin Mary sits on the remains of a wall and presents the Christ Child to the Three Kings, who, together with their retinue, are gathered around her to present their gifts. The Gospel of Matthew tells the story of the Adoration of the Kings, but does not account for the figures who appear in the background here: Saints Mary Magdalene, Bernard of Clairvaux, Jerome and Augustine, as well as the Archangel Raphael and Tobias.

It is likely that the painting was made for the wealthy Florentine merchant Francesco del Pugliese – one of his testaments refers explicitly to a painting of an Adoration of the Kings by Filippino Lippi. The close relationship between Filippino and members of the Pugliese family is well documented, and the landscape of this painting is not unlike that of Sommaia, a village in the mountainous area north-west of Florence where the Pugliese had a family chapel. Francesco del Pugliese was an ardent follower of the Dominican preacher Girolamo Savonarola, whose radical sermons captivated large audiences in Renaissance Florence. Savonarola advocated that Florentines return to the roots of the Christian life. Perhaps the saints in the background of this painting, who all lived as hermits and followed Christ’s example, were inserted at the request of the patron.

Filippino’s interpretation of this biblical story may also have been influenced by a group of paintings associated with the workshops of the Florentine painters Fra Angelico and Gherardo Starnina. Known as Thebaids, these paintings are characterised by similarly prominent landscapes with scenes from the lives of hermit saints. Filippino took their central elements and applied them to an Adoration, a contrast to the richly decorated versions of the scene popular in Renaissance Florence.

This painting is documented in a Medici collection in Florence in the seventeenth century, with an attribution to Botticelli rather than Filippino. In fact, the National Gallery acquired the painting from the celebrated Hamilton Collection in 1882 as a work of Botticelli. This attribution remained into the twentieth century, not least due to the painting’s similarities with Botticelli’s Adoration of the Kings, on which the young Filippino collaborated as a member of Botticelli’s workshop.

In around 1496, Filippino made an altarpiece depicting the same subject, now considered his masterpiece (Uffizi, Florence). It may not be coincidental that the figure standing in the foreground of that picture has been identified as a member of the Pugliese family. Despite the much larger dimensions of the altarpiece, Filippino retained numerous compositional elements, such as the central position of the holy family and the separation of the retinue of the Kings into two flanking groups. (NG)