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The painting shows Mary, the mother of Jesus, presenting her newborn baby to the admiring visitors.
The painting shows Mary, the mother of Jesus, presenting her newborn baby to the admiring visitors. It is based on the account of the visit of the “wise men” from the East in the Bible. The nativity of Jesus is described in two of the gospels: Luke and Matthew. However, the visit of the wise men is only found in the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 2 verses 1-12.
The three wise men have brought Jesus their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. At the front in red is the oldest man, holding a container of frankincense; frankincense was burned in sacrifices to God by the Israelites in the Bible, so it came to be a symbol of Jesus being God. The man behind him is holding a jar of the perfume “myrrh”; this was used in embalming corpses, so it became a symbol of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for mankind. The third man, often called the “Black Magus”, has brought Jesus gold, a symbol of the fact that Jesus is a king.
This painting depicts a scene that has always been central in the history of Christianity, especially since the beginning of the celebration of Christmas, first referred to the in 300s.
Paintings depicting the “three wise men” were common in churches and chapels (Rubens painted lots of versions). It was a natural picture to have in a chapel, because the attitude of the wise men to Jesus was an example of the worshipping attitude which everyone should have towards Jesus.
It was painted by the artist, Peter Paul Rubens, who born in 1577, in what is now Germany. He was one of the most well-known and successful artists of his time. He didn’t usually paint pictures in order to later sell them in a shop or a gallery: most of his paintings were commissioned by groups who wanted his pictures in their churches. This one was originally painted for a convent of nuns in Antwerp, Belgium. It only came to Cambridge in the 1960s.
Paintings depicting the “three wise men” were common in churches and chapels (Rubens painted lots of versions). It was a natural picture to have in a chapel, because the attitude of the wise men towards Jesus is an example of the worshipping attitude everyone should have towards him.
Are there links to current religious practices or a modern equivalent?
It is currently located in King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, and the intention behind it is the same as it was when it was first painted. It is now seen by millions of people because every year the King’s College Christmas Carol Service is broadcast on television.
This painting depicts a scene that has always been central in the history of Christianity, especially since the beginning of the celebration of Christmas, first referred to the in 300s. One difference today is that some regard the story of the three visitors from the East as a legend, not as a fact, though others still see it as a historical event.
There is a clear link between this painting and the text of the bible. On the other hand, it is also clearly an interpretation rather than comparable to a photograph of the event. The painting assumes the traditional Christian interpretation that there were three men, which is not made clear in the Bible. (The idea that there were three men is based on the fact that in the Bible there were three gifts.)
The object containing the frankincense (held by the man in front, and next to Mary’s feet) is a “censer”, an object which priests burn incense during church services in both Ruben’s time and today. The painting clearly reflects Belgium in Rubens’ time – Mary and Jesus both have the skin colouring of Western Europeans. There is still a focus, though, on trying to bring out the meaning of the biblical account in Matthew’s Gospel, that Jesus – even though he is a human baby – is also divine and should be worshipped.
The arrangement of the East end of the Chapel has altered over the years. Photograph shows dark wooden panelling and steps up to the altar before the installation of the painting.
For seven years, work was undertaken to remove the panelling and lower the floor level so that the work of art was positioned below the beautiful stained glass of the East window.
The Wallace Collection is a national museum which displays the wonderful works of art collected in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries by the first four Marquesses of Hertford and Sir Richard Wallace, the son of the 4th Marquess.
In 2008, this painting was the focus of an extensive study by the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp.
Read ‘The Magi Visit the Messiah’ online at Bible Passages