Gentile da Fabriano – Adoration of the Magi

Hi everyone and Merry Christmas! We spent another year together and to celebrate this special day, and to thank you for your support, I decided to talk about a classic Christmas scene painted by the great Gentile da Fabriano: the Adoration of the Magi.

It is a scene rich in details and meanings and we are going to read the story that tells discovering the importance of a message that goes beyond religion.

Adoration of the Magi - Fabriano
ARTIST: Gentile da Fabriano
NAME Adoration of the Magi
LOCATION Galleria degli Uffizi, Firenze
YEAR 1423
TYPE Painting
DIMENSIONS 300×282 cm
MATERIAL Tempera on panel

It was painted between the Middle ages and Renaissance, a period of time when artists were experimenting a lot. However, this work of art is mostly Gothic and we’ll see soon why.
The altarpiece was commissioned by the Florentine patron Palla Strozzi, an Italian banker, politician, writer, philosopher and philologist. So, a person who had a good taste for art, but also enough money to pay one of the best Italian painters of that time, Gentile da Fabriano, as soon as he arrived in Florence in 1420.

And just to give you an idea of how much Strozzi paid for that single work of art: it was about six times the annual salary of a skilled laborer. Crazy right?

The Scene

As I said, this painting, a tempera on panel of 300 × 282 cm (120 × 111 in), is actually an altarpiece, that means that, once completed in 1423, it was originally located over an altar in a dark sacristy illuminated by flickering candlelight. Try to imagine what it meant going closer and see the lights dancing on the paint, but also on the carved silver and gold that made the scene and the characters alive.

But what does the scene depict? Well it is a moment in the Catholic tradition when three Magi (wise men and kings believed to come from eastern lands) offer gifts to the newly born Christ child. However, this is not a simple scene. If we look carefully in fact we can notice that the journey of the Magi is told in the smaller scenes like a cartoon.

A journey that started on the top left with the three climbing a mountain in search of the star they believed would fulfill an ancient prophecy telling of a great king. Following the star, they reached with all their retinue (evidence of their wealth) first Jerusalem as we can see in the middle section and then Bethlehem on the top right.

The Magi

And these are the Magi, dressed in luxurious and vaguely exotic clothes fully decorated with a 3-dimensional effect thanks to the combination of paint and gold carved by Gentile. The opulence is impressive and it’s clear the contrast with the Holy family who is standing in front of them. Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus are clearly wearing simpler clothing, except for the Mary’s white decorated veil. However, the rich and wise Magi kneel in front of poor Jesus who is blessing them. The richness here in fact is spiritual and the Magi know the importance of this little baby. That’s why they took a long and difficult journey to see him and pay tribute. And here we can see way more clearly how the Magi are accompanied by large numbers of courtiers and attendants in what it seems a messy scene. Well actually it is, but on purpose. Gentile painted this crowded moment for many reasons.

A crowded scene

Starting with, even if it’s not the main but it is still part of the reasons, to show off his technical skills and imagination painting unusual clothes, rare animals like monkeys and what it seems to be a tiger, but also horses and humans that fill the space in the attempt of creating real volume (remember that it was still a work in progress at that time as well as the concept of scientific perspective).


And all the humans have a specific face expression and, fun fact, among them it seems that there is the Patron Palla Strozzi. Can you see him in the interactive image below? Little hint: he is looking at us

But the details are not over yet. The dog in foreground looks up and he is moving since a horse is about to step on him and, next to him, a person is stealing the spurs from one of the kings. JK he is a helper who is removing the spurs and that’s another reason of that busy moment. The Magi just arrived. As soon as they dismounted from horse they are already kneeling and removing their crowns in front of Jesus and offering their gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. A third reason is to create a contrast with the simpler and less busy left side of the painting where there is the Holy family. It’s clear in fact that this side is dominated by the calm of the family forced to escape and take shelter in a cave. Well actually, traditionally they took shelter in a cave, but here Gentile painted them outside the cave in front the entrance of a house that seems abandoned. In the house we can clearly identify the Gothic style with the attempt of painting a perspective space, but the proportions are clearly wrong. And here another funny detail: the family obviously doesn’t care about the gifts while the two attendants are very curious and they are carefully inspecting one of them.

Adoration of the Magi and other stories

And that set with the house and cave is visible also in one of the small panels below the main scene: a supporting structure known as a predella. The predella was typical of the altarpieces and it was a space filled with scenes usually connected to the main one. On the left in fact we can see the nativity: Jesus is just born and he is illuminating the outside of the house and cave while Joseph and one of the attendants are sleeping. Gentile painted also another great light source: the angel appearing to shepherds in the background showing his talent on master the contrast of light and dark.

In the middle predella panel, the family flees to Egypt. The last shows Christ’s presentation in the temple.

As you can see, the painting is filled with details and stories. Some even minor like the lonely traveler being accosted by thieves or the hunter following a deer. Pieces of medieval daily life that Gentile beautifully pictured in this work of art.


A very opulent work of art, even the three-arched frame is covered on gold. But still a message of peace thanks to three important kings that took a long journey following a star to know a poor baby who they believed would save the world.

And I hope you can spend a peaceful and beautiful Christmas too wherever you are. I prepared a gift for all of you that you can download for free on my Patreon. (Click here). And, if you can support me, that would help the channel a lot. Thank you and Merry Christmas.

Share with your friends

Leave a Reply