After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” […] 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.Matthew 2:1-2, 10-11, NIV
The journey of the wise men
Brilliant golden brocades. Psuedo-Arabic. Turbans. Leopards and lions. Gentile da Fabriano’s Adoration of the Magi creates a dynamic visual narrative of the journey of the Magi to Bethlehem recounted in the Gospel of Matthew. The painting uses continuous narrative to show us the moment the Magi first see the star announcing Jesus’ birth, their journey to Jerusalem, and then subsequent arrival in Bethlehem where they meet the infant Jesus. Three golden arches (forming part of the elaborate frame) differentiate the three narrative moments, although the final moment—when they arrive at the cave in Bethlehem where Mary, Joseph, and Jesus rest—spills across the foreground.
Here the Magi take turns kneeling before Jesus and presenting him with gifts (of gold, frankincense, and myrrh). In Gentile’s painting, the oldest Magi (eventually known as Melchior) is kissing Jesus’ foot, as the Christian messiah (Jesus) touches his head. The other two Magi (Caspar, middle aged; and Balthazar, young) prepare to do the same, holding their gifts aloft. All three Magi are elaborately dressed, and each one has a golden crown.
The Magi were thought to be from east of Europe (though the specific origins of each Magi are not noted in the Bible). By the later Middle Ages, the Magi were understood as standing in for the world, with each of them coming from Asia, Africa, and even Europe. By the fifteenth century, when Gentile was working, this image of a more globalized array of Magi had been widely adopted. It provided a lavish sense of different places, and allowed artists to show a variety of exotic luxury goods. It also helped to give the impression of a united world under God.
Commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a wealthy banker and merchant, for his family’s chapel for the Florentine church of Santa Trinità, the Adoration of the Magi speaks to the global flow of goods at this time, visual transculturation, as well as the European conceptualization of non-European places and peoples.
The haloes around the Madonna and Joseph are a brilliant gold, emphasizing their holiness. If we look closely at them, we notice the haloes also include what appears to be writing. This script is actually psuedo-Arabic—a script that approximates Arabic writing, but is not entirely correct. It suggests that the artist could not actually read Arabic; that said, he does include Arabic words as well. The haloes also include decorative rosettes separating each word. Psuedo-Arabic script doesn’t only appear on Mary’s and Joseph’s haloes either. The young page, standing next to the white horse in the foreground, wears a sash written in the script. One of the female figures behind Mary, whose back is turned to us, wears a white shawl decorated with pseudo-Arabic writing. The sleeves of the youngest Magi suggest the script as well, written at the elbow. Here Gentile seems to write the word al-‘ādilī (The Just).
But why would the artist include psuedo-Arabic in one of the holiest scenes from the life of Jesus? One possible reason is that other Italian artists similarly included psuedo-Arabic into their paintings—often on haloes or textiles—and Gentile was continuing this tradition. We find examples in the paintings of Duccio, Giotto, and Masaccio, and in sculptures like Verocchio’s David and Filarete’s doors for the Vatican. Gentile incorporated pseudo-Arabic into other paintings, such as his Madonna of the Humility (c. 1420) and Coronation of the Virgin (c.1420). It is likely more complicated than Gentile solely copying other artists however.
It seems that artists like Gentile borrowed motifs and stylistic patterns from Ayyubid or Mamluk metalwork and textiles that they encountered first hand. These were highly coveted luxury objects and materials, and wealthy families—like the Strozzi—often owned examples. The city of Florence also had made several diplomatic missions to important Muslim trade areas, including one in 1421 to Tunis and another in 1422–23 to Cairo. They established a commercial treaty with the Mamluk sultan in Egypt, and opened a direct trade route to Alexandria via Pisa (which Florence captured in 1406) and Livorno (controlled by Florence after 1421). It has been suggested that these commercial ties may have stimulated even greater interest in luxury objects, like Mamluk brass objects, and the decorative schema found on them.
A third possible reason is that pseudo-Arabic connoted sacredness in some way. The city of Jerusalem (and the Holy Lands more generally) is in the eastern Mediterranean and in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries these areas were controlled by Muslim rulers. Perhaps the use of Arabic script was a way for artists like Giotto and Gentile da Fabriano to reference the Holy Lands within their paintings, or even to suggest the common heritage of Islam and Christianity.
Wearing signs of “the east”
Besides the use of psuedo-Arabic, other elements of the painting point to Gentile’s desire to call to mind “the east” and the exotic sense of the Holy Lands. Multiple figures in the painting wear turbans, a common visual sign that indicated someone from outside Christian Europe, typically someone of Middle Eastern descent. Caspar, the second Magi, wears one. They are used here to suggest the Holy Lands once again, as well as the eastern or non-European origins of some of the Magi. After all, the journey of the Magi takes them to Jerusalem and onto Bethlehem, and so the turban here communicates that the scene is outside of Christian territory, in a more exotic location.
Besides turbans, we also find figures, such as the Magi, wearing elaborate brocades, damasks, other silks, and velvets. Melchior wears a patterned garment of pearlescent white with golden accents, and above that a mantle of burnt siena accented with gold and silver. On both, rosettes and other floral designs animate the surface. Caspar wears a long tunic in black decorated with golden pomegranates.
While the pomegranate was a prominent Christian symbol of rebirth, it was also common as a symbol of its eastern origins and it was a popular motif in textiles produced by artists in Muslim-controlled regions as well. Gentile also includes pomegranate trees in the painting to connote Jerusalem’s and Bethlehem’s eastern locales. Balthazar’s outfit is similarly elaborate. His abdomen is covered in golden designs that almost mimic peacock feathers. His long and elaborate sleeves extend to his knees, and are enlivened by reddish flowers scrolling across the surface. Golden and silver fringe can be found on the edges of his entire outfit.
The exact origins of these textiles is difficult to pinpoint but they all evoke “eastern” patterns and textiles. They could have been acquired by trade from Muslim merchants, or produced in Italy. Cities like Venice, Genoa, and Florence became skilled centers of silk production, and their designs often mimic Muslim textile patterns. Such clothing (whether acquired from afar or made in Italy), was expensive, and was highly sought after by elites. The ornate appearance of the Magi’s clothes in Gentile’s painting does seem to suggest that they are men “from the east.”
An exotic menagerie
As if the painting wasn’t already a feast for the eyes, Gentile has also included a number of non-European or exotic animals into the riotous scene. Two monkeys sit atop a camel. We also find a lion eyeing two birds, and further below a leopard (or possible cheetah) amidst the tightly packed group of men. Animals from outside Europe (Asia, Africa, and eventually the Americas after 1492) were a constant source of interest for Europeans. They were collected, given as gifts, and sometimes even trained to join in courtly hunting expeditions.
Falcons were not necessarily an exotic predatory bird, but falconry had been heavily influenced by Arabian/Muslim traditions. Falcons were especially associated with Persian culture. New falcons acquired from distant lands also appealed to Italian elites. The man holding the falcon is possible a member of the Strozzi family (possibly Palla, the patron) because the Italian word for falconer is strozziere.
Wealthy individuals sometimes acquired exotic animals as a sign of their wealth and their interest in the natural world. Monkeys and apes were popular collectibles, and here they wear collars so as not to escape. Large cats, like the leopard and lion, were sometimes kept and trained for hunting, especially among the northern Italian courts. Exotic animals like camels were popular gifts.
The non-European animals in the painting also help to set the scene in a more exoticized eastern location. The horses are likely Arabian horses, acquired from Muslim trading partners. The camel’s associations with the Holy Lands are mentioned in the Bible. While there is no peacock displayed in the painting, one man does wear a hat/headdress made of its feathers. The peacock, as a symbol of resurrection, dated back to antiquity. Peafowl came from Asia, namely India, and the man’s headgear helps to further associate his eastern origins.
And of course, some of these exotic animals had symbolic meaning that played a role in the painting. Matthew 19:24 famously notes that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven. Here, it might symbolically remind wealthy viewers, like the Strozzi, of this warning.
The two most expensive materials used in this painting are lapis lazuli and gold. The Virgin Mary’s robe is ultramarine, or a brilliant blue color derived from lapis lazuli. It came from mines in Afghanistan. It could only be mined five months out of the year too, increasing its monetary worth. At this time in the Renaissance, it was more valuable than gold. This is why artists like Gentile often reserved it for Mary’s mantle, using other blue pigments throughout the remainder of the painting.
Gold was also expensive, and Gentile has used a lot of it here. Palla Strozzi, wanting to advertise his wealth, would surely have been thrilled by the lavish use of the gold across the surface. Most gold came from west Africa, traded along caravan routes. Mali, which at one point had been ruled by the powerful and wealthy Musa Keita I (known as Mansa Musa in Europe) reputedly had an enormous amount of gold. When Musa Keita I traveled to Mecca on the hajj between 1324 and 1325 he flooded the market with gold and caused an economic collapse because the price of gold fell steeply.
Gentile doesn’t just incorporate gold into his painting, he uses a technique to suggest an even greater abundance of the precious metal. He uses pastiglia, or raised gilt ornament, which we see on the crowns, swords, spurs, and even on some textiles. It gives these golden areas a three-dimensional quality because they are raised from the flat surface of the painting. Imagine the shimmering quality of all this gold and other material magnificence in the flickering candlelight of the Strozzi chapel! Ennio G. Napolitano, Arabic Inscriptions and Pseudo-Inscriptions in Italian Art (PhD dissertation, Otto-Friedrich-Universität, Bamberg), p. 99.
Anna Contadini, “Sharing a Taste? Material Culture and Intellectual Curiosity around the Mediterranean, from the Eleventh to the Sixteenth Century,” in The Renaissance and Ottoman World, ed. Anna Contadini and Claire Norton (London: Ashgate, 2013), 24–61.
Maria Vittoria Fontana, “The influence of Islamic art in Italy,” Annali dell’Università degli studi di Napoli “L’Orientale,” Rivista del Dipartimento di Studi Asiatici e del Dipartimento di Studi e Ricerche su Africa e Paesi Arabi, vol. 55,no. 3 (1995).
Rosamund E. Mack, Bazaar to Piazza: Islamic Trade and Italian art, 1300–1600 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002).
Alexander Nagel, “Twenty-five notes on pseudoscript in Italian art,” RES: Journal of Anthropology and Aesthetics, vol. 59/60 (Spring/Autumn 2011), pp. 229–248.
Patricia Lee Rubin, Images and Identity in Fifteenth-century Florence (New Haven and London:Yale University Press, 2007).