Hieronymus Bosch (‘s-Hertogenbosch, 1453 –1516), Adoration of the Magi, c. 1495, oil on panel, 138 cm x 144 cm, Madrid, Museo del Prado
The scene represented by the great Dutch painter shows some traditional elements and some innovative and very particular elements, starting with the choice of the triptych shape. In the side panels, he painted the two sponsors of the work with their respective patron saints: Peter Bronckhorst with St. Peter and his wife Agnes Bosshuysse with St. Agnes. The beautiful landscape on the background of the three panels, in addition to showing the beauty of nature and the abundance of water, shows, to a careful observer, details that allow us to glimpse their symbolic interpretation: in the central panel, in the background there are two armies facing each other, whereas in the right side we see two passers-by who are assaulted by two wolves.
The foreground of the central panel of the triptych is occupied by the offering scene of the three kings coming from the East. The three Magi represent the different ages of man (youth, adulthood, and old age) and they remind us with their gifts of quotes from the Old Testament telling the presence of Jesus, the son of God born of a woman. Balthazar, on his knees in front of the Child and Mary, presents as a gift a gold sculpture representing the sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22:1-18); behind him there’s Melchior, bringing incense on a plate and wearing a cape on which the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon is embroidered (1 Kings 10:1-13); then, on the left, with a beautiful white dress contrasting with his black skin, Caspar is bringing myrrh in a spherical pyx that has a relief representing the offer of water to King David by three mighty men (1 Chronicles 11:15-19). Caspar is certainly the one who stands out the most, especially for his beautiful white dress, adorned with an embroidery that looks like thorny foliage.
In the background of the central scene we can see the hut that has served as a refuge to Joseph and Mary, now crowded with several characters. Many of them are shepherds, arrived after the announcement of the angels. Then, there’s a really peculiar, half-naked figure on the threshold of the hut, in front of other grotesque figures, with a red cloak and a turban: this is thought to be a leper (as a matter of fact, he has a plague on his right leg and the bell with which he had to announce his presence to the people) and for this reason critics have interpreted him as representing the Antichrist or the Jewish people. Instead, I like to think that Bosch wanted the poor, the excluded, those who inhabited the "existential peripheries", using the words of Pope Francis, to participate in the arrival of the Kings from the East to the Child Jesus.
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Mt 2:2).