(b. ca. 1450, 's-Hertogenbosch, d. 1516, 's-Hertogenbosch)
Triptych of the Adoration of the Magic. 1510
Oil on wood, 138 x 72 cm (central), 138 x 34 cm (each wings)
Museo del Prado, Madrid
The inner wings of this altarpiece are occupied by the kneeling figures of the donors, husband and wife, attended by their patron saints Peter and Agnes. The coats of arms behind them identify the couple as members of the Bronckhorst and Bosshuyse families, but nothing is known of these names which would help determine the date of the work or its original destination.
The central panel displays the adoration of the Christ Child by the three Kings or Magi. The Infant Christ sits solemnly enthroned on his mother's lap. The Virgin and Child resemble a cult statue beneath its baldachin, and the Magi approach with all the gravity of priests in a religious ceremony. The splendid crimson mantle of the kneeling King echoes the monumental figure of the Virgin. That Bosch intended to show a parallel between the homage of the Magi and the celebration of the Mass is clearly indicated by the gift which the oldest King has placed at the feet of the Virgin: it is a small sculptured image of the Sacrifice of Isaac, a prefiguration of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. Other Old Testament episodes appear on the elaborate collar of the second King, representing the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, and on the Moorish King's silver orb, depicting Abner offering homage to David.
A group of peasants have gathered around the stable at the right. They peer from behind the wall with lively curiosity and scramble up to the roof in order to get a better view of the exotic strangers. The Shepherds had seen Christ on Christmas Eve, but they frequently reappear as spectators in fifteenth-century Epiphany scenes. Generally, however, they display much more reverence than do Bosch's peasants, whose boisterous behaviour contrasts strongly with the dignified bearing of the Magi.
The most curious detail of Bosch's Epiphany is the man standing just inside the stable behind the Magi. Naked except for a thin shirt and a crimson robe gathered around his loins, he wears a bulbous crown; a gold bracelet encircles one arm, and a transparent cylinder covers a sore on his ankle. He regards the Christ Child with an ambiguous smile, but the faces of several of his companions appear distinctly hostile.
Because they stand within the dilapidated stable, time-honoured symbol of the Synagogue, these grotesque figures have been identified as Herod and his spies, or Antichrist and his counsellors. Although neither identification is quite convincing, the association of the chief figure with the powers of darkness is clearly suggested by the demons embroidered on the strip of cloth hanging between his legs. A row of similar forms can be seen on the large object which he holds in one hand; surprisingly, this can only be the helmet of the second King, and still other monsters decorate the robes of the Moorish King and his servant. These demonic elements undoubtedly refer to the pagan past of the Magi.
The stable and its inhabitants seem to be the source of the malevolent influences contaminating almost every part of the majestic landscape which unfolds in the background of all three panels. Demons haunt the ruined portal in the left wing, where Joseph sits hunched over a fire. The crumbling walls around him are the remains of King David's palace, near which the Nativity was popularly supposed to have occurred; like the stable, it represents the Synagogue, the Old Law collapsing at the advent of the New. In the field beyond, peasants dance to the sound of bagpipes, a familiar symbol of the carnal life. On the right wing, wolves attack a man and a woman on a desolate road. Behind the stable in the centre, the followers of two of the Magi rush towards each other like opposing armies; the host of the third King appears beyond the sand dunes. The gently rolling countryside contains, in addition, an abandoned tavern and a pagan idol. Even the distant grey-blue walls of Jerusalem, one of Bosch's most evocative renderings of the Holy City, appear vaguely sinister. A little roadside cross leans precariously to one side at the left, and the two watch-towers are architecturally similar to the demonic city which Bosch depicted in the St Anthony triptych in Lisbon.
The frame of the triptych is original.