Contextual background for teachers
The Adoration of the Kings (1510–1515)
Jan Gossaert (c.1478–1532)
Medium: oil on oak
Dimensions: H 177.2 x W 161.8 cm
This large painting illustrates the Biblical story of the three kings (also known as the wise men or magi) who came to worship the newly born Jesus and to give him their gifts.
According to the Bible, they had travelled a long way, following a mysterious star from the east that eventually led them to the stable in Bethlehem where Christ was born. His parents, Mary and Joseph, had not been able to find a room in an inn.
In Gossaert's scene, the stable has been substituted for a palace, now in ruins. Two shepherds are also looking on in the background, and beyond them, an angel sent by God is telling shepherds about the birth of Christ too.
Jan Gossaert was a French-speaking artist from the Low Countries. He was one of the first Northern European Renaissance artists to visit Italy and was employed by a range of royal and noble families. Across Europe during the Renaissance, new techniques in oil painting had been developed to such a degree that every texture and minute detail could be painted in the most astonishing way.
Gossaert seems to have painted this altarpiece between 1510 and 1515 for the church of St Adrian at Geraardsbergen in East Flanders (which is in Belgium today). It is said that the church had a piece of clothing belonging to one of the three kings in its possession in 1519, so this may be why Gossaert painted the kings' clothing in such rich detail.
On King Baltazar's crown, the signature of the artist can be seen. Text also appears in several other places within the painting. In blue at the bottom of Baltazar's scarf is written the start of a prayer. There is writing on the scroll held by the angel in green on the left which translates to 'glory to God in the highest'. Finally, on the lid of the chalice of myrrh at the Virgin's feet presented by King Caspar, his name is written.