(b. ca. 1478, Maubeuge, d. 1532, Middelburg)

The Adoration of the Kings

Oil on wood, 177 x 162 cm
National Gallery, London

This Adoration is thought to have been the altarpiece of the Lady Chapel of Sint-Adriaansabdij, Geraardsbergen. It was commissioned by a local nobleman, Daniel van Boechout, Lord of Boelare, who was to be buried in the chapel.

The sumptuous huge panel has been elaborated in dazzlingly crisp detail, without compromising the clarity and focus of the whole. In the ruinous edifice of the Old Dispensation, the kings of the earth with their retinues, awestruck shepherds and the nine celestial orders of angels join to adore the newborn Child, seated on his mother's lap as upon a throne. Caspar has offered gold coins in a gold chalice; his name is incised on its lid lying next to his hat and golden sceptre at the hem of the Virgin's gown. Balthazar advancing on the left is identified by the inscription adorning his crown, and the artist has signed his name below. The border of the cloth on which Balthazar, like a priest at the altar, holds his precious offering, is embroidered with the first words of the hymn to the Virgin, Salve Regina: 'Hail Queen, mother of mercy, life, sweetness...' The artist's second signature is incorporated in the neck ornament of Balthazar's black follower. The third king, Melchior, waits on the right. On the hillside behind his retinue the angel is announcing Christ's birth to the shepherds. Joseph, in red and with a cane, stands at some distance gazing up to Heaven. Although generally following Netherlandish precedent, Gossart shows his awareness of modern, and even foreign, art: the dog in the right foreground is copied directly from Dürer's famous engraving of the miraculous conversion of Saint Eustace, dated to 1500/1.

Two unusual features of the imagery are the dove of the Holy Spirit descending from the star, which becomes a symbol of God the Father - so that the three persons of the Trinity are represented in the Adoration - and the Virgin holding the chalice offered by Caspar. Jesus seems to proffer one of the gold coins. Of the three gifts which the Wise Men from the East presented to the Child (Matthew 2:11) the myrrh, later used to embalm Christ's body, traditionally symbolised his sacrifice; the frankincense was specified in the Old Testament as an incense reserved for the tabernacle of the Lord; the gold was tribute paid by kings to the King, after the example of Solomon. Yet perhaps an additional significance is suggested here in the Child's gesture. The royal tribute will be redeemed in blood - the eucharistic wine - through the Saviour's infinite charity.

Gossart's painting provokes close reading, although its general message within the Christian story is clear. It is perhaps the last great exemplar of that painstaking art of the Netherlands which spared no labour to place at the feet of the Virgin and her Son a minute description of the costliest products of human craft - the wares of goldsmiths, weavers, furriers, embroiderers, tailors, hatters and bootmakers - arrayed on panel through ingenious mastery of the painter's brush. As a testimonial to his own craft or to show his devotion, the artist may have included his own likeness, peeping out of a narrow doorway behind the ox at the Virgin's shoulder.

Gossart's main source of inspiration seems to have been the Monforte Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes. In addition, the artist also borrowed from prints by Dürer and Schongauer (e.g. the dogs from Schongauer's Adoration of the Kings, and Dürer's St Eustace).

Recent technical examination of Gossart's paintings led to the suggestion that Gerard David collaborated with Gossart on some paintings including the present Adoration. It is assumed that, in addition to some other details, the head of the Virgin was painted by Gerard David, whose influence on Gossart is shown by a comparison with David's Adoration of the Kings in London.