(b. 1471, Nürnberg, d. 1528, Nürnberg)
Adoration of the Magi1504
Oil on wood, 100 x 114 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
The elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony ordered this painting for the Schlosskirche (the church in the castle) in Wittenberg. It was once believed to be the central part of a polyptych, with, on the side wings, the story of Job, in Frankfurt and Cologne. However, this hypothesis has already been called into question. The elector of Saxony then donated the painting to Emperor Rudolph II in 1603. An exchange with the Presentation at the Temple by Fra Bartolomeo brought it in 1793 from the gallery in Vienna to the Uffizi.
This altarpiece was probably conceived without the lateral panels, in contrast with the actual practice in Nordic countries, and at variance with the situation of the Paumgartner altarpiece (Alte Pinakothek, Munich). Dürer framed and delimited a large space by an architecture composed of arches of a very refined perspective. The three kings arrived at this slightly elevated space from the back and after having climbed two steps. A single figure, sharply foreshortened, followed in their footsteps from the distant background. Only the upper half of his body is shown where he now stands at the bottom of the two steps. He is Oriental and wearing a turban. The heavy traveling bag he holds probably contains precious gifts for the infant Jesus.
The Madonna is clad in azure clothes and cape, a white veil covering her head. She is holding out the infant, who is wrapped in her white veil, to the eldest king. He is offering the infant a gold casket with the image of Saint George, which the infant has already taken with his right hand. This is the only action that unfolds in the principal scene, except for the Oriental servant's gesture of putting his hand in his bag. All the other characters are motionless; immersed in thought, they look straight ahead or sideways, creating the effect of a staged spectacle set with immobile characters.
The architecture of the fictive ruins behind the Madonna is beautiful and imaginative. Dürer had previously experimented with this design in drawings and engravings. The background is stupendous: the limpid sky, in which the cumulus clouds chase one another; the light Nordic city, climbing up the cone-like mountain; the road bending into the archway where people stop, following behind the three kings. These are represented with much imagination and variety, as far as the fashion and colour of their clothes and the differences in their expressions. In the far right are a lake and a boat.
This imagination and variety continue in the extraordinary depiction of the kings, in lavish clothing, with their precious jewels, and with the beautiful goblets and caskets that they bear as gifts. It is telling here that Dürer was also an expert goldsmith. According to the Nordic tradition, also adopted previously by Mantegna in Italy, one of the kings is a Moor. The physiognomy of the young king with long blond curly hair, standing in the middle of the painting, bears, according to recent interpretation, a resemblance to a self-portrait of Dürer.
Dürer was passionately devoted to the study of animals and plants, which he reproduced faithfully from life. He often distributed these images in his landscape passages, and particularly in his drawings and engravings of the Madonna. We find some here as well: in the foreground, to the right, a flying deer, already known from various watercolours, which here symbolizes Christ; the plantain (plantago major) seen directly behind, whose healing properties were once much appreciated, recalls the spilled blood of Christ; in the foreground, now to the left, on the millstone beside the carnation, a small coleopterum surrounded by a few butterflies, the ancient symbol of the soul, which here may be a symbol of the resurrection.
The panel of the Uffizi represents the richest and most mature actualisation of all Dürer's altarpieces, before his second trip to Italy, and therefore before the Feast of the Rose Garlands, painted in Venice (Národní Galerie, Prague).