Adoration of the Magi by Botticelli: Analysis & Overview

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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erica Cummings

Erica teaches college Humanities, Literature, and Writing classes and has a Master's degree in Humanities.

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.

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

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