The Adoration of the Magi was one of the most popular subjects within the broader Brueghel canon, one of the only ones to be depicted by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, both his sons and Jan Brueghel II. The present compositional type is one of three employed by Pieter the Younger, of which Klaus Ertz in his 2000 catalogue raisonné lists twenty-one versions.
Of those versions, until recently none had been widely accepted - including by Marlier - as the work of Pieter the Younger; however, cleaning of the version in the Philadelphia Museum of Art revealed a signature and date 'P. BREVGHEL 1595'. Dr. Ertz has noted that the spelling of the name as BReughel rather than BRueghel has heretofore always when accompanied by a date been of 1616 or later. He therefore accepts the Philadelphia painting as autograph, but dates it to post-1616; at the same time he notes that the composition is remarkably retardataire for a work of circa 1620, with its bird's-eye perspective - the horizon nearly at the upper edge - and cluster of small figures around the crib. Pace Ertz, one might instead wonder whether the date inscribed on the painting is correct, and that the composition therefore dates from the end of the sixteenth century, and that the infallibility of the signature as a guide to date might be open to question.
The remaining twenty known versions of this composition remain ascribed to hands other than Pieter II. Marlier suggested the slightly shadowy figure of Pieter Balten as the author, but in his monograph, Ertz rejects that hypothesis and instead divided them primarily into two different hands from the Brueghel workshop that he termed 'Hand A' and 'Hand B'. Ertz has never seen the present picture in person and ascribed it to 'Hand B' in his 2000 monograph. He has recently re-appraised the picture (again from photographs) and we are grateful to him for proposing the current attribution while admitting that he finds the composition a mystery.
The attributional debate aside, the discovery of the Philadelphia signature confirms the evident fact that the composition is entirely Brueghelian. The specific prototype is, however, unknown. It has been suggested that it is the painting traditionally given to Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels. If indeed the work of Pieter I, then that must be the case; however that attribution is disputed, including by Ertz who ascribes it to an anonymous hand. If one must instead look elsewhere, then there are two clear inspirations for the composition: the closest in proximity is Pieter Bruegel the Elder's Adoration of the Magi of 1564 in the National Gallery, London, to which the central figures of the Virgin and Child and the kneeling Magi must surely relate. Bruegel's composition in turn, however, owes a clear debt (for example the figure of the standing Magus) to Hieronymus Bosch's Bronchorst Bosschuyse Triptych of 1495-9 in the Prado, Madrid.
That Pieter II knew his father's Adoration is proven by his copy of it (sold Sotheby's, London, 19 April 1989, lot 24). It is possible that he knew Bosch's composition as well (early versions of it are known, including a triptych at Upton House, Warwickshire, and a panel at Petworth House, Sussex), and the overall conception of the group suggests that the two compositions are connected; his elder brother, Jan Breughel I, produced a number of versions of a composition of this subject that borrows directly from both Bosch's work and the London Adoration (e.g. that of 1600 in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp), suggesting either that he knew both works or that he was following another prototype. The earliest known dated version of Jan's composition is of 1598, three years after the date of the Philadelphia painting (assuming that the latter's date is correct). As such, Pieter II was not following his brother in expanding the stable and entourage, and must either have invented the composition, drawing on his father and Bosch's works, or - perhaps more likely - that he instead also took as his starting point a lost work of his father's invention.