SPRANGER, Bartholomaeus
(b. 1546, Antwerpen, d. 1611, Praha)

Adoration of the Kings

c. 1595
Oil on canvas, 200 x 144 cm
National Gallery, London

Spranger was one of the leading representative of the Mannerist style. As used by art historians, Mannerism implies above all a sophisticated art, fully aware of all the techniques of naturalistic representation but more concerned with artifice than with fidelity to nature. Spranger was appointed court painter to the Emperor Rudolph II in Vienna, and in 1581 moved with the imperial capital to Prague. As Rudolph's art impresario, he designed the displays of the imperial collection - decorative objects, sculpture, prints - which were to influence artists throughout Northern Europe and the Iberian peninsula. Above all, he furnished erotic imagery to Rudolph's taste, silken titillation couched in mythological or allegorical guise.

A less familiar aspect of Spranger's work is this altarpiece possibly commissioned by Rudolph and given by him to a prince-bishop of Bamberg for his private chapel. The subject allows Spranger to show off the fully international range of his talent. In the darkened stable we can just make out rustic Flemish shepherds; the dog in the foreground has found a tasty morsel; the kings proffer goldsmith's wares almost as elaborate, and just as detailed, as Pieter Bruegel's or Jan Gossaert's . These touches of Northern realism, however, are peripheral to the almost oppressive magniloquence of the main scene, more grandly Italianate than any Italian's. As their elder bends down to kiss the infant's foot, the two standing kings pose like ballet dancers in virtual mirror image of each other. All three are gorgeous in shot satins, acid harmonies of yellow highlights on red silk, blue shadows on pink. The red-haired king at the right is said to be an idealised self portrait of the artist. His regal bearing is echoed in the elaborate signature by the feet of the black king, which describes Spranger as born in Antwerp and painter to His Holy Majesty the Emperor.