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 composition is one of three depicting the theme to be used by Pieter Brueghel II, of which Klaus Ertz, in his 2000 catalogue raisonné (op. cit.), lists twenty-four autograph versions, including this picture.
The prototype for the composition has traditionally been regarded as the painting in the Oskar Reinhart collection, Winterthur. That work has in the past been almost universally attributed to Pieter Bruegel the Elder; more recently, however, the attribution has been opened to question, and Dr. Ertz rejects it, regarding it as possibly a work by an unknown artist of the generation of Pieter II (ibid., pp. 299-305). He suggested instead that both the Reinhart picture and Pieter II's versions derive from a lost work, quite possibly by Pieter the Elder. In this, to a degree, he follows earlier authorities, who questioned whether Pieter II could have copied the Reinhart picture without repeating the overtly prominent falling snowflakes that cover the latter work, and suggested instead that Pieter II employed a preparatory drawing of his father's in his adaptation of the composition. Dr. Ertz also suggests the possibility that the central, bearded figure by the fire in the shelter behind the stable, may be a representation of his father, Pieter I (ibid., p. 303).
Whatever the prototype, the composition is typically Brueghelian in feel, and relates loosely to the other three types of Adoration scenes by the family: that focusing almost exclusively on the immediate protagonists by Pieter I (London, National Gallery) and copied by Pieter II (see ibid., p. 207, fig. 244); that known in a group of versions by Jan Brueghel I, copied also several times by Jan II (for example that sold in these Rooms, 9 July 2003, lot 12); and that by Pieter II known in versions possibly by himself but also ascribed to two as-yet unidentifed hands from his circle or studio, of which one example was sold in these Rooms, 8 July 2008, lot 40. The present composition relates in particular in the figure of the kneeling king, clad in a scarlet and ermine robe, with his gift of coins in a trefoil cup; in the slightly idiosyncratic pose of the third king, looking over his shoulder and holding his silver-gilt nautilus-ship; and in the slightly unusual shape of the stable roof and semi-broken wall: some of which features derive ultimately from the depiction of the theme in the central panel of Hieronymus Bosch's Bronchorst Bosschuyse Triptych of 1495-9 in the Prado, Madrid, that was probably known to all three of the Brueghels through later copies.