Through July 5, 2015
National Gallery of Art
Bearing gifts, they traversed afar, and now they’re coming together again.
In 1618, the great Flemish artist Sir Peter Paul Rubens painted portraits of the three wise men. For the first time in 130 years, these paintings can be viewed together in the exhibit Peter Paul Rubens: The Three Magi Reunited at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. They will be on display through July 5, 2015.
The three paintings were commissioned by Rubens’s childhood friend, Balthasar Moretus. The project held special significance for Balthasar, since he and his brothers had been named after the magi—Balthasar, Melchior and Gaspar. Although the paintings stayed together in Antwerp, Belgium, until 1876 and then briefly in Paris until 1881, eventually they dispersed across the world. The Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium, now holds the portrait of Gaspar (above, left), and the Museo de Arte de Ponce near san Juan, Puerto Rico, has the portrait of Balthasar (above, middle). The National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, houses the last of the trio, the portrait of Melchior (above, right). It was given to the National Gallery of Art in 1943 on the condition that it could not travel, which is partially why the three paintings have not been reunited in so long.
Although the magi make an appearance in the Book of Matthew, they are not named or even numbered in the Bible. It is later tradition that we have to thank for casting them as three wise men—because they brought three gifts—and assigning them names, ages and ethnicities. In Rubens’s paintings, the three wise men are portrayed as coming from different continents—Africa, Asia and Europe—and as representing the three stages of life—youth, middle age and old age. Bearing myrrh, Balthasar (above, middle) is depicted as a young African man. With frankincense in hand, Melchior (above, right) is portrayed as a middle-aged man from Asia, and, holding a gold dish filled with coins, Gaspar (above, left) is shown as an old European man.
Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook The First Christmas: The Story of Jesus’ Birth in History and Tradition.
Witnessing the Divine: The magi in art and literature by Robin M. Jensen
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