UNKNOWN MASTER, German
(active in 1420s in the Middle Rhineland)
The Adoration of the Magic. 1420
Tempera on pine, 100 x 81 cm
Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt
The picture is the right-side wing of a triptych (the Ortenberg Altarpiece), the central panel of which represents the Virgin and other members of her family, whilst on the left-hand wing the Nativity is depicted. The relatively large-size work, which used to decorate the high altar of the parish church of Ortenberg, was painted by a master of the Middle Rhineland, who was influenced by the Frech and Italian art of the period. The scene takes place in front of a golden background, in a narrow space, in surroundings which look like stage sets. The Virgin is seated on a red bed on the left in the tiny hut-small in proportion to the size of the figures-in Bethlehem and, holding the naked Infant on her lap. She receives the homage of the Magi who are arriving from the right. Strangely enough, the shed is attached to the dark rocks, whereas on the right it is directly adjacent to a tower in the town. With a na'ive ingenuity the painter represented the hut as if seen from above, while the tower is depicted from a point of view below it. Thus he was able to give the impression that the latter was higher. Without using this solution he would have been obliged to cut the tower into two and could not have shown the characteristic ridge of its roof. Or else, he should not have allowed the hut to reach the frame-and in this case what would have filled up the top left corner of the picture? Evidently it was important for him to fill up the whole surface of the picture. That is why he painted the jug above the bent back of Joseph, who is squatting in the left corner, and this is the purpose, among others, of the little red table and the bread-basket which is hung on the rocky wall.
It is with infinite humility and devotion that the two kneeling Magi kiss the hand and the foot of Jesus. As an expression of their veneration they also take off their crown. The one nearer to the spectator puts it on the large table, a round object rather similar to the haloes, as if he were solemnly placing a gift on an altar. This symbolic meaning of the table is perhaps stressed by the bread-basket hung on the wall above the head of Jesus and which refers to the Eucharist.
The frame, like a setting of some precious stone or noble metal, encloses the picture and contributes to its markedly sublime and solemn mood. Indeed, the painting is full of representation of fine examples of the goldsmith s art, e.g. the crowns, the gold sword and the huge, heavy haloes which resemble golden dishes, and what is more, the technique of the painting itself has affinities with the work executed by goldsmiths of the period. The silver underpaint of the garments lends a metallic sheen to the translucent, enamel-like top layer of yellowish paint.