The scene of the Magi coming to worship Christ at the Nativity is a common theme in Renaissance art. The Renaissance artist Botticelli painted a famous version of this theme in 1475, called ‘The Adoration of the Magi,’ which we’ll learn about in this lesson.

Botticelli and the Magi

Sandro Botticelli was an innovative Renaissance artist from Florence, Italy, who painted several famous works with religious and mythical themes. One of his famous religious works painted in 1475, is The Adoration of the Magi, which depicts the biblical story of the three Wise Men and others coming to worship Christ at the Nativity.

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Botticelli actually painted a few depictions of Magi adoring Christ, but this 1475 painting is his most famous version. The Adoration of the Magi is so intriguing because it reveals important information about the religious nature of the topic, Florentine society, and Botticelli himself.

The Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli, currently in the Uffizi Museum in Florence
The Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli, currently in the Uffizi Museum in Florence

The Adoration of the Magi ; Religion

Because it depicts one of the most important scenes from the Bible, The Adoration of the Magi has a religious meaning. The Holy Family – consisting of Christ, Mary, and Joseph – are the central focus, and they are placed above all the other figures in the scene. The star that led the Magi to Bethlehem can be seen at the top of the painting, shining directly on Christ.

The three Magi (the kneeling man in black to the left of Christ, the kneeling man in red directly below Mary, and the kneeling man in white/gold next to him) and their attendants (the other figures in the scene) have brought their gifts to offer to the Holy Family. This suggests that the Holy Family (and specifically Christ) deserves our worship and reverence.

Though the painting highlights the sacredness of the scene, there is a humble realism about it as well. For example, the scene is set in old ruins. And even though Christ, Mary, and Joseph are holy, they appear like regular humans. It looks like Joseph could even be falling asleep! It’s easy to imagine that Joseph was likely pretty weary after the ordeal of traveling to Bethlehem and having a newborn. Therefore, Botticelli paints the Holy Family as divine and yet accessible, holy and yet human.

The Adoration of the Magi & Florentine Society

In addition to the religious aspects of the painting, The Adoration of the Magi portrays some important figures from Florentine society. Several members from the powerful Medici family are featured. The Medici family were prominent politicians and bankers who ruled Florence during the Renaissance. They were also renowned patrons of the arts, so they were involved in many aspects of Florentine society. The Medici men often compared themselves to the Magi because they wanted to portray themselves as wealthy and powerful leaders yet humble servants of Christ.

In fact, the kneeling Magi in black is depicted in the likeness of Cosimo the Elder, the man who founded the Medici dynasty. Scholars disagree as to who the other figures are, but it’s likely that the kneeling Magi in red, the kneeling Magi in white/gold, the standing man next to him in red and black, and the standing man in burgundy with crossed hands on the left hand side, are all members of the Medici family.

Sculpture of Cosimo Medici
Sculpture of Cosimo Medici

Botticelli also featured another prominent Florentine figure in the painting. The elderly man in blue who looks at the viewer and seems to be pointing to himself is most probably Guasparre di Zanobi del Lama. Del Lama was a wealthy Florentine who paid Botticelli to paint The Adoration of the Magi in order to put it in a chapel he owned in Florence. Del Lama was wealthy but did not have the best reputation in the city. Commissioning Botticelli to paint both himself and the Medici family in this religious painting was thus an attempt to gain social favor from the Medici family. It was also an attempt to establish himself as a God-fearing patron of the arts.

The Adoration of the Magi ; Botticelli’s Skill

There is yet one more figure in the painting we might recognize. Botticelli actually put himself into his own painting as the standing man in yellow on the right hand side. Botticelli was in fact friends with some of the Medici family, and they funded many of his works. Botticelli even had his own art studio inside the Medici Palace. Botticelli is thus asserting his social and political alliance to the Medici family by inserting himself into the painting.

Self-Portrait of Botticelli
Self-Portrait of Botticelli

Botticelli seems to be very proud of his own artistic skill. Indeed the painting is very skillfully done. He used vibrant colors and beautiful details to paint all these figures in various positions, yet there is a cohesive harmony to the painting that draws the viewer’s attention to the Holy Family in the center. The figure of Botticelli confidently looks directly at the viewer, as if to say that it is his skill that allows the viewer to enjoy this holy scene.

Lesson Summary

Like most great works of art, there are multiple layers of meaning to Botticelli’s The Adoration of the Magi‘. From a religious perspective, the painting highlights both the holiness and the humbleness of the Magi paying homage to the Holy Family.

From a social perspective, the painting highlights prominent Florentine citizens, including the Medici family and the patron of this painting, Guasparre di Zanobi del Lama. Finally, from an artistic perspective, the painting represents Botticelli’s skill at its finest.