Advent in Art 05: Adoration of the Magi

Cherie McQuilkin
Sunday, 11 December 2005

Adoration of the Magi, Gentile Da Fabriano, 1423

Reflections by Cherie McQuilkin


At the beginning of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, Frodo Baggins learns a ring he’s inherited from his uncle has hugely destructive powers, and the evil wizard Sauron’s searching for it. The wizard’s henchmen are on their way and Frodo’s home is no longer safe. While the prospect of leaving the only place he’s known might be dangerous, the pain of staying now far outweighs the trials of the journey.

The many people I’ve asked about the three magi over the past few weeks seem more aware of the fictional journey taken by four hobbits in Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, than the path the three wise men traveled.

Gentile da Fabriano was also a master storyteller and this intricate painting is his last surviving epic…striking for its sense of movement and journey.  On the mountain top, the three magi are totally alone, surrounded by stillness and space as they look out on the endless sea they’ll have to cross. In that moment of clarity and in that place of decision-making, they choose to begin a quest into the unknown and are launched into this animated, energetic march. It sweeps them through several arches…each one a sign they’ve left the last part of their life behind.

Further down, the busy, noisy, crowded procession suddenly piles into the foreground, where the excitement of finally arriving after so many months is obvious in the many fine details. Faces glance up in relief, while the page removes his master’s spurs as a sign the journey’s finally complete. There’s a real sense they’ve come out the end of something that was tough going.

Like Peter Jackson, da Fabriano used the landscape he knew in his masterpiece. He came from, and was named after, the town of Fabriano in the provincial Italian Marches. The region begins at the Adriatic Sea, but further back is hilly and then mountainous. The landscape the travelers face in the painting’s background reminds us that any transition has its ups and downs.

The artist was no stranger to changing fortunes. He was born around 1370 to a merchant family. But he wasn’t ten years old when his mother passed away and his father retired to a monastery, dying there about 5 years later. By 1408 da Fabriano had arrived in Venice, where his work earned him superstar status and he became Italy’s most sought after painter in the first quarter of the 1400s. He’s a local boy who’s made the big time…a bit like Peter Jackson goes to Hollywood.

The painting process itself held many challenges. Finished around 1424, it took three years to complete. Just the technique alone meant endless tiny brushstrokes applied in many layers. Da Fabriano painted it in Florence for the Strozzi family’s chapel at the Church of Santa Trinita.  They were locked in a power struggle with the formidable Medici family…who finally took control of the city’s government and exiled Palla Strozzi in 1434. He’s the one who paid for the masterpiece, and is the only person in it looking directly at us. The one character whose eye line draws us into the journey is about go on one of his own.
We’re left to guess what pushed the three wise men to begin their adventures. They were thought to be magi; experts at reading the stars and interpreting dreams. Whatever the signs, they wanted something better. Some of us might enter a time of transition or questing for a better relationship, better income, better health or healing from an old emotional wound.

Like Palla Strozzi, or da Fabriano as a child, some of us have no choice about the paths we’re launched on.  Our lives can be turned upside down by a terrifying medical diagnosis, a redundancy or a family tragedy. These journeys can be internal, but are no less heroic than Frodo’s or the magis’.

Da Fabriano doesn’t seem to doubt God is with the three wise men, even at the lowest point of their travels. The star looms large, a symbol of guidance and hope. Stamped in gold leaf, it hangs like a neon sign above the Holy Family. The painter was a master of the International Gothic style that involved intricate gold work, but the precious metal was also a symbol of the divine, heaven and hope for the downtrodden. It’s in the minute detail, even down to the horses’ spurs and the stitching on characters’ clothing…so God is infused throughout the journey.

And after the crowds and chaos, we return to the stillness. The space around the Holy Family helps create the impression of calm and meditation.  The journey’s not been for nothing, but it doesn’t end here.

At the end of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo returns home to his old life, but his travels have transformed him. He no longer feels at home and decides to leave for Grey Havens; the place elves go when they’re tired of living among men. It’s a kind of end for him, but here the wise men’s path differs most from the hobbits’.

According to CS Lewis’ poem “Journey of the Magi”, they were also transformed by their journey and no longer able to pretend their old lives fitted. But historical records seem to show that what they found gave them hope. Instead of ending their journeys, the wise men appear to have begun new ones. In Germany, the Calendar of the Saints at Cologne’s great cathedral, which apparently houses their remains, says they were aged more than a-hundred when they died “Having undergone many trials and fatigues for the gospel”.