Art up close: Bassano’s “Adoration of the Magi”

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The Adoration of the Magi, by Jacopo Bassano, 1542, now on exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

One of the true joys and privileges of my job is that I often get to see artwork in either the presence of the artist who created it or accompanied by an expert curator. They’re able to share with me information that gives me a whole new understanding of a work. In turn, I get to share what I learn with you.

And in the case of “The Adoration of the Magi” by Jacopo Bassano, I’ve got lots to tell you.

I recently sat down with MIA curator Patrick Noon on a bench in front of this rich and glorious Venetian painting (which is visiting Minneapolis from Scotland’s National Gallery as part of the Titian exhibition) and talked for a full hour about the images within it and the stories behind it. Here’s what I found out:

adorationleft.jpgPainted in 1542 by Jacopo Bassano, “The Adoration of the Magi” is also known as “The Adoration of the Kings” and is a depiction of the three kings paying their respects to the newborn babe Jesus Christ. It’s a scene that’s been caught countless times on canvas, and each telling serves to reveal as much about a particular period in art history as it does about the biblical event.

Gesturing to the left-hand side of the painting, Noon points out how Bassano uses religious symbology found in many works in the mid-16th century.

“The architecture is an allusion to the decline of the pagan world as a result of Christ being born, and the light comes through the architecture, hitting Christ’s head – that’s God the father making his appearance,” explains Noon. “I believe the flowers [in front of the donkey] are columbine, thought to resemble winged birds, representing the Holy Spirit. The ox represents Christianity while the donkey represents Judaism, So the ox is recognizing Christ, while the donkey is not. The tree stump refers to the wood used for the true cross – that’s why it’s sticking in front.”

Noon says while the painting depicts the celebration of the arrival of Christ, the tree stump serves as a foreshadowing of Christ’s fate – death on the cross in sacrifice for humanity’s sins.

Noon adds that by bringing together the Christ child, the beam of light (representing God) and the columbine (representing the Holy Spirit), Bassano in essence presents us with the Holy Trinity, while Joseph and Mary’s status as saints is indicated by the halos surrounding their heads.

adorationright.jpgCompared to the space and order of the left third of “The Adoration of the Kings,” the right hand side feels crowded and jumbled. People press in, trying to get a look at baby Jesus, but are blocked by servants and horses.

Noon explains that this scene is a variation on the theme of the sacra conversazione or “sacred conversation.”

“The composition [on the right] is kind of a foil for the space he’s giving the other people,” says Noon. “Those with more space are the people with privilege. People on the other side of the horse are not privileged, they’re being crowded out. Those facing in are those who have access, who are in conversation with the Virgin and Child. ‘Sacred conversations’ usually take place between the Virgin, Child and saints, and usually in a cloistered setting. It was the Italian painter Giovanni Bellini who first introduced the conversation into a landscape setting, and Bassano’s doing the same here.”

On the far lower right-hand side of the painting Noon points out damage the piece has suffered, muddling the images of both a dog and a man’s face. Noon estimates there was originally two to four more inches of canvas to this work, but that it had to be removed after it was damaged. The reframing of the image serves to crowd in the people on the right even more. Still, considering the work is 468 years old, it’s held up incredibly well.

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It’s the very center of the painting however which surprised and intrigued me most. For if the Holy Family are relegated to the side of the painting, who is this royal figure who gets to stand front and center, wearing the gold and green striped doublet?

I should have known; it’s the guy who commissioned the painting.

Jacopo Gisi, Bassano’s patron, wanted a painting for his estate – it probably would have hung in some large front entryway. The two youth behind him in red and blue are believed to be portraits of his sons. And notice that it’s his gift that has the attention of both the Virgin Mary and Baby Jesus.

But get this: Gisi never claimed the painting, and according to Patrick Noon it’s even believed that he was refunded his money for the work. Why? No idea (I asked Noon if he thought it might have anything to do with the prominent horse’s rear end, or the other derrières front and center in this work – he didn’t think so).

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Bassano also uses a few tricks and devices in putting together this scene. Many of the details are drawn from previous compositions and studies. The architecture is almost an exact copy – brick for brick – of a woodcut by Albrecht Dürer. According to the painting’s didactic, Bassano lived in a provincial town 40 miles outside of Venice, so he kept up with artistic trends by studying prints like Dürer’s.

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Albrecht Dürer, Sojourn of the Holy Family in Egypt, c. 1501-2, woodcut, from Life of the Virgin, 1511, now on view in the “Venice on Paper” exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

Also, in the center of the painting, just to the right of the column – do you see the villager gathering sticks off in the distance? Patrick Noon says that figure plays two roles; first, he helps set this “sacred conversation” solidly in a rural landscape – something Venetian artists didn’t do until they felt the influence of painters further to the North.

villager.jpg“Domesticizing was the movement of the moment,” explains Noon, “to make the saints more approachable and real. It’s the movement that eventually leads to the inquisition, the counter reformation and the idea that mannerism is not acceptable in religious painting. Simple people need to be able to understand it; exotica and exaggerated mannerisms are not allowed.”

Secondly, Noon adds, the figure draws our eye out and up, providing visual relief from the dense scene below.

“He doesn’t want this to be just confined to the front planes – it would be too shallow. The background provides a release, getting you out of the foreground, and provides a sense of scale.”

So does every image have some hidden meaning behind it? According to Noon, no. When I asked him about the pink banner that dominates the upper right-hand corner, Noon replied “oh, he’s just filling in space and balancing out the crowd below.” Sometimes a flag is just a flag, evidently.

Above all, Bassano’s “Adoration of the Magi” serves as a testament to the painter’s skill. Throughout the scene Bassano revels in what he does best; his clothing, from leather to fine silk, invites you to reach out and caress it (but, for the sake of the museum, please don’t). Each animal’s coat is clearly identifiable as horse, oxe, donkey and dog. While the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus both have alabaster skin, their companions vary by degree, based on their class and profession.

“It’s one of his best works, one of his most spectacular paintings really” says Noon. “You would think it was made for a church, but it wasn’t.”

You can see “The Adoration of the Magi” by Jacopo Bassano for yourself at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. It’s on view through May 1 as part of the “Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting” exhibition.

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