From friend, Janet Laisch, for 3 Kings Day…
While excavating in nearby Vespignano, I visited the Uffizi Gallery as frequently as possible, and one of my favorite works of art there is Leonardo da Vinci’s Adoration of the Magi– a large, square, (8 feet x 8 feet, 1 inch), unfinished drawing, begun in 1481. Seeing his unfinished art is like entering his studio and watching him at work; it’s a unique way of understanding his mind and his method.
Even though Leonardo daVinci’s Magi, does not adhere to every detail of the Biblical account, it captures the story’s meaning in a profoundly beautiful way.
The Epiphany, celebrated twelve days after Christmas, is one of the most often depicted Biblical stories in western art as told in Matthew 2:7-12:
“Visitors from the East..They went into the house, and when they saw the child with his mother Mary, knelt down, and worshiped him. They brought out their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and presented them to him.”
Some artists adhere only loosely to this story, choosing instead to showcase their ability to choreograph crowds of people, and paint an array of colorful textures in an elaborate landscape. Donors who commissioned the work, like political propaganda, paid money to include family portraits among the retinue of kings bringing gifts to Christ.
Compared to most western art, Adoration of the Magi scenes characteristically depict some of the only examples of people from Eastern and African origins rather than only western European origin.
Here are a few examples.
by Benozzo Gozzoli
by Albrecht Durer
by Hieronymus Bosch
by Peter Paul Rubens
Leonardo, first a scientist and an inventor, began this work (shown above) only after completing preliminary studies. His notebooks include studies for this work: a one-point perspective plan, shown below, which he partly abandoned, illustrates how he used one point perspective to plan the background battle scene. To remedy the distorted upper right corner that resulted, he simply omitted it in the final plan.
His Adoration of the Magi drawing, pictured above, captures, in the hazy background, this battle scene among pagan ruins, probably representing the battle and ultimate defeat of paganism marked by Christ’s birth.
As the only Epiphany art depicting a battle scene, it is both a poignant and original choice.
Also notice the roof outlines in this study, which he also abandoned, suggesting that perhaps Leonardo considered depicting this Magi scene in or near a house as described in Matthew.
True to how Leonardo worked, after finishing several studies for this drawing, he laid and revised pencil lines directly on the wood panel.Leonardo carefully choreographed each person in the foreground, creating a controlled rather than haphazard crowd. To anchor the protagonists, they form a triangle in the center of the composition.
Mary’s head forms the point of the triangle and then following Christ’s extended arm to the bowing Magi’s feet, the right point of the triangle is visible; the ground itself forms the base of triangle and two bowing magi on the left form the left side of the triangle, finishing the line at Mary’s head, forms a complete triangle. He orders the crowd behind Christ and Mary in three U-shaped rows, and each individual turns his or her head in different directions– some people gesture wildly with opened mouths, presumably to speak about beholding Christ for the first time.
Only after finishing the composition did Leonardo begin layering dark washes over these pencil lines. Even at this stage, Leonardo’s characteristic sfumato or smoky, hazy atmospheric perspective makes the image appear to emerge from the canvas. In the unfinished drawing, Mary and Christ emerge in sharper focus than the hazy background battle scene. Too, the contrast between light and dark or chiaroscuro helps Mary and Christ stand out against the dark rocks and people surrounding them, since Leonardo has applied fewer dark washes to Mary, Christ and the three Magi at their feet, who are lighter in color, and in sharper focus. Leonardo is most famous for blending brushstrokes so the under drawing is undetectable in his finished works.
If Leonardo had finished, he would have added more washes and color. A glimpse at some of his finished works such as the Mona Lisa below, reminds us that Leonardo’s sfumato technique, much like modern portrait photography, allows the subject to be in sharp focus while the background is out of focus or blurred.
Leonardo’s Madonna of the Rocks
Leonarodo’s Last Supper
Also by looking at Leonardo’s finished paintings, we can clearly imagine the colors Leonardo would have applied to finish his Adoration of Magi. By looking at his paint palette, we know he included white, black, red, blue and yellow, which he mixed to create unique variations on aquamarine, burgundy, brown, olive green, and goldenrod. I imagine for Mary, who is painted in a soft S curve, that Leonardo would have applied blue for her dress and red for her shawl. Christ as he is drawn appears sturdy and confident and would wear red around his waist, as his right hand blesses the kings before him.
Similarly, we can imagine what God’s finished Creation would look like, starting with the invitation he extends to us all through Epiphany.
Matthew’s important words from the Epiphany story, “visitors from the East” probably apply to an even broader diversity.
Surely when Christ reaches out his hand to accept gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, brought from the East and from Africa, it is God’s acceptance of His diverse people as stated explicitly in Acts 11: God has ushered in everyone– to follow his message.