This Adoration of the Magi has traditionally been described as coming from the circle of Vittore Carpaccio, probably because the physical attributes of the painting -- the heavy weave of the canvas and the oily pigments used -- are typical of Venetian paintings of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. The relatively informal arrangement of figures and their modest scale within the landscape, however, are significant departures from compositions by Carpaccio, such as Sacra Conversazione (Art Museum, Caen), where the figures are placed close to the picture plane in the formal, frontal arrangement adopted by his older contemporary Gentile Bellini.
The anonymous author of the present lot was likely looking to Northern painting for inspiration -- specifically to the work of Hans Memling. There is a noticeable connection between the present painting and an episode in Memling's Seven Joys of Mary (fig. 1; Alte Pinakothek, Munich). In both works the main story of the Magi kneeling in honor before the Virgin and Child is lost in a bustling scene populated by an array of colorful figures as exotic as the craggy landscape they inhabit. The inscription held up by two of the king's retinue bares the Eastern Orthodox emblem signifying 'Jesus Christ Conquers', and is one of many details displaying the artist's commitment to an accurate historical telling of the story.
The carpet on which the Magus Caspar kneels can be identified as a large medallion Anatolian (Turkish) rug, or 'Holbein rug', popular in Europe and produced in Spain in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries (see D. King, in the exhibition catalogue, The Eastern Carpet in the Western World, London, 1983, pp. 56-57, no. 13) and favored by Hans Holbein in his portraits. While Venetian artists such as Carlo Crivelli and Giovanni Bellini also adopted specific carpet types in their paintings, which they branded as their own, it is significant that the carpet so prominently displayed here is distinctly taken from northern painting.
Hans Memling is not known to have worked in Italy but he did enjoy the patronage of Italian bankers in Bruges. In 1455-65 Memling produced a large triptych of The Last Judgement for Angelo Tani, an ill-fated commission which was diverted by pirates to Gdànsk, and never arrived in Italy. Tani's successor in Ghent commissioned Panorama with scenes from the Passion (Galleria Sabauda, Turin), which was installed in the Portinari Chapel in the hospital of Santa Maria Nuova, Florence; as well as a pair of portraits of himself and his wife Maria Maddalena Baroncelli (Metropolitan Museum, New York). Italian painters must have been introduced to Memling through the Passion once it arrived in Florence, and by the 1480s it seems his portrait style was widely imitated there. It is likely by these means that Memling's influence spread within Italy, explaining this rather unusual Venetian adaptation of his style.
We are grateful to Professor Peter Humfrey and Everett Fahy for independently pointing out the northern influence in this painting (private communication, October 2008).