(b. ca. 1460, Oudewater, d. 1523, Bruges)
Adoration of the Magic. 1500
Oil on oak, 84 x 67 cm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
This work, the style and technique of which are typical of Gerard David, has long been attributed to him. After Hans Memling's death, Gerard David came to be viewed as one of the best painters in Bruges, where he worked from 1484 until his death.
The narration of Christ's nativity in St Matthew's Gospel produced a whole series of medieval stories and legends in which artists found iconographic inspiration. The Adoration of the Magi that Gerard David painted around 1500 takes place in the ruins of a palace serving as a stable. In the foreground the Virgin, seated on the edge of a manger, presents the Child to the three magi, Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, who have arrived to offer gold, incense and myrrh, symbols of his kingship, his divinity and his sacrifice. Resting on his walking stick, Joseph stands next to his young wife. The magi symbolise the three ages of life, but also the three continents known at the time, Europe, Africa and Asia. They are accompanied by a large retinue, certain members of which escort them to the Child. The others wait, at a distance, on their mounts. Their exotic costumes and the presence of a camel indicate that they have come from afar. To the right a shepherd observes them. In the distance, to the left, above the town of Bethlehem, shines the star that has guided them.
The subject is treated in the iconographic tradition of the time. The ruins could be an allusion to King David's palace or an evocation of the fallen synagogue. Gerard David has nonetheless opted to represent the episode of the adoration of the magi in a wider context by multiplying the figures present at the scene, thereby strengthening the significance and importance of this event. It is not impossible that these include portraits of the painter's contemporaries. The man to the right of the pillar could be a self-portrait of Gerard David, though this cannot be proved. The same hypothesis has been formulated for the man looking at the spectators in the far left of the scene. Gerard David has produced a realistic, palpable and convincing rendering of this episode of Christ's incarnation, in the manner of the Flemish Primitives of whom he is one of the last representatives.