119 – Beyond Christmas (a coda)


The Adoration of the Kings from The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, f. 24v, 963-984. British Museum, London.

Last week, when I was talking about a 6th Century mosaic showing the procession of the Magi (118 – Epiphany in Ravenna) I said that it was only several centuries later that the Magi began to be seen as Kings (if you want to know why the ‘wise men’ were promoted, why not head back to the Advent Calendar, and specifically day 15?) and that maybe I would come back to that idea fairly soon. So here we are: today’s image is a fantastic example. It comes from the 10th Century, which is when the ‘Kings’ first appear in art, and can be found in a richly illuminated manuscript in the British Museum, The Benedictional of St Æthelwold, which has been fully digitised – so you can flick through the pages yourself in the privacy of your own cell, just as Æthelwold, the man who commissioned it, might have done. He was bishop of Winchester from 963-984, which gives us the dates for the image – a two-decade span, admittedly, but that’s quite narrow given that it was over a millennium ago. The status of these supplicants cannot be doubted: whatever fashions they wear, the crowns tell us that they are kings, although they process much as their predecessors the Magi from Ravenna did, some three centuries before, towards the enthroned Madonna and Child.

On the opposite page, f. 25r, we see the Baptism of Christ (‘f’ stands for folio, or ‘leaf’ – implying page – which, in a manuscript, is only numbered on one side, the recto, or ‘front’. The other side is called the verso, or ‘back’, hence 24v for the Adoration and 25r for the Baptism). These two images come together because, in the early days of the church, the Adoration of the Magi and the Baptism of Christ were both celebrated on 6 January, two of the three ‘Epiphanies’ remembered on that day – the third being the Wedding at Cana. The Benedictional is effectively a calendar of blessings to be said during church services throughout the ecclesiastical year.

Jan Gossaert (Jean Gossart), The Adoration of the Kings, 1510-15. Oil on oak, 179.8 × 163.2 cm. NG2790 https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/NG2790

I was also saying (last week) that I wanted to come back to Gossaert’s Adoration of the Kings, because of a number of very astute comments, observations, and questions from you. Thank you! I’m always keen to learn more, and both comments and questions help with this – as do corrections – so feel free to point out any mistakes too, please! I think I’ve mentioned this before, but the best academic writing about the painting is Lorne Campbell’s entry in his catalogue of The Sixteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings in the National Gallery. These catalogues are all fantastic, and Lorne’s are among the best – but they are also fantastically priced. However, this particular entry is online for all to read for free: just click on the link in the catalogue title.

There was a lot of discussion about this painting in the press in December, and somebody wondered if the journalists had been reading my blog. Alas no! They were responding to a special exhibition, Sensing the Unseen, which opened when the Gallery came out of lockdown briefly in December. I hadn’t heard about it before I started the Calendar, but it allows you to see the painting in most remarkable detail. It is free, which is great, but you have to be patient, given that the exhibition can only cope with three people at a time, and there is no booking system. However, this is all academic at the moment as the Gallery is closed, but if we do come out of ‘Lockdown 3’ before 28 February (when the display is due to finish) it is well worth the effort. They have examined the painting with far higher resolution than I was able to muster from the NG website, and the details are exquisite. In connection with this, poet Theresa Lola will be discussing how Gossaert’s altarpiece inspired her poem Look at the Revival on Thursday 21 January at 4pm GMT. It’s a free talk, which you can book via the Gallery’s website (again, click on the link in the title).

I was very glad to read that someone was ‘struck by the contrast between the servant’s snobby facial expression and bombastically bulging stomach and the more dignified look of the king’s face’. It’s so true – but it also reminded me that stomachs were ‘in’ in the sixteenth century, and that they did reach bombastic proportions. Compare Balthazar’s ‘servant’, or attendant (left), with Melchior (right: we know he dresses in the height of fashion, as he wears red tights), both of whom appear to have padded stomachs. And then compare them with a contemporary suit of German armour (dated c. 1500-1510) from the Wallace Collection (for whom I will be giving a short a course on the Passion of Christ in March. This armour will probably feature, thanks to the inscription on its chest).

Armour was often made to match contemporary fashion, and, given that the armour is made of inflexible steel, the waist is not created by a tightening of the belt. The full, rounded stomach implies there would be a padded doublet underneath – or, at least, it is made in emulation of a padded doublet, which in all three cases is rounded to include the chest: those are not pot bellies! The same is true of other elements of the armour. Have a look at the square toes of the sabatons (the equivalent of shoes): they are the same shape as Jean de Dinteville’s slippers in Holbein’s Ambassadors. They are far more practical than the sabatons of the 14th and 15th century which were absurdly pointy, just like the contemporary shoes. Fun for banquets, perhaps, but hardly practical in battle – unless you got within kicking distance, I suppose, but kicking isn’t easy in full body armour.

I was also asked if Balthazar (centre) had maybe brought his son along with him. It’s a good point – he and his courtier (left) do look remarkably similar – and certainly have the same nose. However, while Balthazar’s face looks like it was studied from life, the courtier’s looks more generic. Gossaert could be making up a face based on those he has seen. We know he admired Dürer’s work, as we saw how he quoted a dog from one of the German artist’s prints – and I wonder if he ever had a chance to see this wonderful drawing by Dürer, dated 1508, which is now in the Albertina in Vienna. It is certainly based on first-hand observation, although sadly we don’t know the identity of the model.

Balthazar is holding his gift with a stole around his neck, and two of you pointed out the similarity between the stole and the humeral veil – thank you! I rarely attend church services these days (or didn’t, in the days when one could), and know relatively little about how the contemporary church functions. But the humeral veil is a form of stole used in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as some Anglican and Lutheran Churches, in order to hold something which should not be touched – such as a ciborium or monstrance – as a sign of respect for the sanctity of the object. I’m comparing Balthazar here with an image from a contemporary website for the purchase of vestments. It’s appropriate, as the priest is shown holding a monstrance, which is used to display the consecrated host – and I ended up comparing both Balthazar and Melchior’s gifts (or at least the ‘containers’ they came in) to monstrances.

I was also intrigued to notice that both Balthazar and Melchior were wearing hats and crowns. The reason why became clear when it was pointed out that Caspar’s crown resembles a cap of maintenance. Here’s the crown next to Wikipedia’s drawing of a cap of maintenance.

The cap is often used in heraldry, something with which I’m afraid to say I’ve never got to grips. However, it denotes a special respect or status – aristocratic or even royal. The Oxford English Dictionary says that both Henry VII and Henry VIII were granted one by the pope, for example. The origin of the name is obscure, but it could simply relate to the idea that the cap can be used to ‘maintain’ the crown on the head, by making it fit more easily. It would also stop the hard metal from scratching the head of an all-too-sensitive monarch. Like the drawing, Caspar’s ‘crown’ appears to be made of red velvet lined with ermine – but that’s not the crown. That’s just the cap of maintenance. The crown is what appears to be the hat band, which I described as ‘made of elaborate gold links with black tynes’ – i.e. the pointy bits. Seen like this, it is clear that both Balthazar and Melchior are wearing crowns over caps of maintenance, but that Gossaert has adapted the caps to make them look more ‘foreign’ – as those wearing them have travelled from afar. Melchior’s (on the right) is closer to the standard idea, with a peak and a turned up brim.

In heraldic terms, the cap would be worn with the trailing peak at the back – but that is not how Melchior wears his (nor, I suspect, would Casper). There is a stylistic resemblance to the medieval bycocket – modelled for us by the Empress Helena, below, in a detail from Agnolo Gaddi’s fresco cycle of the Legend of the True Cross in Santa Croce in Florence (c. 1380). However, if you look carefully, she is also wearing a crown over it, although the crown is only just sketched in, possibly a secco. It may have been Gaddi’s intention to gild it, thus making her look truly regal – but that never happened. It’s also worthwhile having a look at our own Queen’s crown – the Crown of St Edward, made in 1661 for the coronation of Charles II.  The ermine trim at the bottom and the purple velvet inside are adaptations of the cap of maintenance.

Thank you all so much for your contributions – I have enjoyed stretching my understanding of Gossaert’s endlessly fascinating painting even further! But now I feel it is time to move on. Any thoughts on what should be next?

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

5 thoughts on “119 – Beyond Christmas (a coda)

  1. Dear Richard
    I had no idea how much detail there was in the Jan Gossaert painting, thanks for all your insights which proved a non fattening alternative to the chocolate advent calendars currently in vogue. NO encouraging of pot bellies here please.
    I would like to know more about the Giotto frescoes in Assisi please. Having learnt about the Scrovegni Chapel I’m keen to see more of his work.
    Maybe you’d consider this as a topic.

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    1. Thanks, Caroline – and what a good idea! I’m sure you can never spend too much time with Giotto, so after a few other artists and centuries I shall head over to Assisi – remind me if I forget!

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  2. As Lent is a month away, are there any works which depict Christ in the Wilderness?
    Many thanks for all your lectures with AHA and the Advent Calendar entries. They have all proved highly entertaining. I particularly enjoyed Ravenna – just sorry that I missed so much when I was last there! Assisi sounds a brilliant idea – probably the same will go for that when you’ve finished!

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  3. As Lent is as imminent as anything else, are there any works portraying Christ in the Wilderness?
    Thank you for the Advent Calender – another one of my favourite paintings. Also for the AHA lecture about Ravenna. If you attempt Assisi ( what a great idea) I’m sure I shall realise, as with Ravenna, how much I have missed on my trips there. Looking forward to it!

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    1. Thank you – and good question! I can’t think of any, off the top of my head, although there are a few ‘temptations’ – not the same thing, I know. I’ll have a look around…

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