Painting of the Month

Gentile da Fabriano, The Adoration of the Magi, 1423, The Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

In the Christian calendar this is the season of Advent, the Nativity and the Epiphany. In our modern times it is easy to forget just how important the Christian calendar was to all walks of life in medieval Europe. I have chosen The Adoration of the Magi as this month’s painting as one of the most commonly painted scenes in medieval churches from the thirteenth to seventeenth centuries. My version, and one of my favourite paintings is Gentile da Fabriano’s altarpiece from around 1423. Originally commissioned for the rich Strozzi family of Florentine bankers in the Santa Trinita Church, it now resides in the Uffizi Gallery.

The altarpiece consists of the main panel which shows several different views of the journey taken by the Maji culminating in their worshipping the Christ Child in Bethlehem. The procession looks like the wealthy and famous of fifteenth century Florence adorned in their rich renaissance clothes. Look closely and you will see the patron, Palla Strozzi, in the red hat in the foreground, and his father as the falcon trainer behind the Kings.

Look also for the beautifully painted exotic animals that Gentile adds in the procession. The style can be considered the high point of the International Gothic seen all over Europe just prior to the Italian Renaissance. The frame, like many early altarpieces, should also be considered a work of art in its own right. It is constructed of poplar wood and gold leaf with three cusps contains tondos, or round images of worship and three pradellas (small historic views) at the bottom depicting scenes selected by the patrons. In this case the Nativity, the Flight to Egypt, and the Presentation at the Temple.

The Flight into Egypt, detail from pradella from The Adoration of the Magi, Gentile da Fabriano, 1423.

One of the masterpieces of early Italian art before the realism of Brunelleschian perspective would render the gothic quite primitive looking. Still one of my favourites and you can see a wonderful tapestry copy in Hawling Church in Gloucestershire.