An iconic subject in the Brueghelian canon, the Adoration of the Magi is treated on a monumental scale in this painting. The whirling composition depicts the arrival of the Magi’s bustling retinue to Bethlehem, where they have come to pay their respects and offer gifts to the newly-born King, the Christ Child. The core of the composition relates to a work of the same subject by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (London, National Gallery), which has been expanded and embellished to incorporate the full breadth of the kingly procession. Entering through the right background, the colourful, exotically-clad party, travelling on foot, horseback, camelback and even on an elephant, is making its way through a wintery Flemish landscape, where peasants can be seen ice skating on a frozen river to the right. The narrative climax takes place in the centre of the panel, with the encounter of the Magi and the Christ Child, in a derelict stable that shelters the Holy Family. The incorporation of strongly characterised faces, extravagant costumes and varied emotional responses, are all typical of the Brueghelian visual idiom and account for the image’s enduring appeal.
This composition is known in twenty-one versions, recorded by Klaus Ertz in his 2000 catalogue raisonné of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s works (K. Ertz, Pieter Brueghel der Jüngere, Lingen, 2000, I, pp. 317-20, nos. E.267-A.287). The specific prototype for the composition is not known. It was long thought to be a painting on canvas given to Pieter Bruegel the Elder in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels, however, the attribution of that picture is now widely disputed. Of the twenty-one surviving versions, fifteenth are ascribed by Ertz to Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s workshop. Given the extensive output of the Brueghel studio in the late-sixteenth and early-seventeenth centuries, it is hardly surprising that the master delegated the execution of paintings to skilled assistants and journeymen. Indeed, this would have been common practice at the time and a commercial necessity given the growing demand for Brueghelian works. The present Adoration appears to be a work of an anonymous artist active in the last quarter of the sixteenth century or first quarter of the seventeenth century.