Botticelli and Humanism

Medici and Magi

The Adoration of the Magi theme was popular in the Renaissance Florence. The work was commissioned by Gaspare di Zanobi del Lama, a banker of dubious origins and morality connected to the House of Medici. In the scene are present numerous characters among which are several members of the Medici family: Cosimo de' Medici (the Magus kneeling in front of the Virgin, described by Vasari as "the finest of all that are now extant for its life and vigour"), his sons Piero (the second Magus kneeling in the centre with the red mantle) and Giovanni (the third Magus), and his grandsons Giuliano and Lorenzo. The three Medici portrayed as Magi were all dead at the time the picture was painted, and Florence was effectively ruled by Lorenzo. The figure at the extreme right is popularly thought to be a self-portrait of Botticelli.

Adoration of the Magi

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1475-1476, tempera paint on panel, Uffizi, Florence)

For most of the fifteenth century, the Epiphany was celebrated in Florence with a great festival. Expensively clad citizens reenacted the journey of the three kings to Bethlehem with processions through the streets. Shortly before this work was painted, however, the elaborate pageantry of the festival was curtailed. Preachers like Savonarola complained that excessive luxury obscured the day's religious significance.

Botticelli's painting seems to reflect this new concern. He places Jesus at the center of a powerful X formed by the opposing triangles of kneeling worshipers and the roof of the manger. The classical architecture of the manger and the crumbling ruins also have theological significance. Legend held that earthquakes destroyed pagan temples at the moment Christ was born, and in a more general sense ruins suggest that the old order of the Law of Moses is supplanted by the new era of Grace made possible by Christ's birth.

Adoration of the Magi

Sandro Botticelli, Adoration of the Magi (ca. 1478-1482, tempera and oil paint on panel, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC)