Pedro Berruguete was a key exponent of the so-called ‘Hispano-Flemish’ style in Spain, and a leading figure in the artistic flourishing of the Iberian Peninsula during the fifteenth century. Berruguete probably trained somewhere in the Kingdom of Castile in northern Spain though little documentation survives to verify this. Indeed, little is known about his early career, but the publication of a (now-lost) document dated 1477 by the historian Luigi Pungileoni in 1822, referring to the work of ‘Pietro Spagnuolo pittore’ in Urbino, has provided a crucial piece of evidence about his life. During the 1470s, the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro, launched a number of ambitious artistic projects across his palaces: redecorating his Urbino studiolo with a complex scheme of trompe-l’oeil intarsia panelling and a series of painted portraits of Famous Men (now Louvre, Paris and Galleria Nazionale delle Marche, Urbino); as well as commissioning seven larger paintings of the Liberal Arts (Music and Rhetoric, now National Gallery, London) for his summer palace at Castel Durante. For these ambitious decorative schemes he had employed the Netherlandish painter Justus of Ghent, also called Joos van Wassenhove, who had been summoned to Urbino by circa 1473–74 when he painted the Communion of the Apostles for the city’s Confraternity of the Corpus Domini. Berruguete was apparently working in Urbino from circa 1475, and his hand has been identified in some of Justus’ Famous Men, the compositions of which he later re-used after his return to Spain. Though the extent of his involvement in the projects has been debated, Berruguete’s presence in Urbino seems certain and enabled him not only to hone his knowledge of Netherlandish painting, but also to see the work of great Italian masters like Piero della Francesca, who was also working in the Duke’s employment.
The Adoration of the Magi is generally accepted as an early work by Berruguete, painted before his purported journey to Italy and a date of circa 1473-1475 would seem most likely. The sophistication of the style and composition in this panel shows that the artist was already a skilled and observant painter, even before his time in Urbino. From the 1440s onwards, painting in Spain had increasingly looked to the Netherlands as an arbiter of taste, artistry and technical brilliance. Paintings by artists like Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden were actively and avidly imported to Spain allowing local artists to study and copy Netherlandish examples, while journeys to Flanders, like that of the Aragonese court painter Lluís Dalmau from 1431, allowed painters to gain first-hand experience of the Netherlandish use of oil paint, which slowly began to replace egg tempera as a more painterly medium in southern Europe during the second half of the fifteenth century. Berruguete’s Adoration provides further proof of the circulation of northern influences across the Mediterranean and its impact on artists working there. The composition of Berruguete’s design possesses striking similarities with Martin Schongauer’s engraving of the Adoration of the Magi of 1470-74 (fig. 1), which ultimately derived from Rogier van der Weyden’s Columba Triptych of circa 1455 (Munich, Alte Pinakothek). This composition seems to have become relatively firmly entrenched in Spain by the 1480s with painters like Fernando Gallego continuing to use and adapt it as a model (Berruguete himself returned to the same composition for his Adoration in the Iglesia de Santa María in Becerril de Campos, Palencia). The popularisation of engravings and woodcuts during the second half of the fifteenth century increasingly allowed artistic designs to spread more rapidly across Europe (a phenomenon which peaked with the publication of Dürer’s print series in the early 1500s). In the present work Berruguete copies, in reverse, the almost exact position of Schongauer’s kneeling king, the Christ Child seated on the Virgin’s lap, the young king wearing elegantly pointed shoes with large spurs, and the two figures in the royal entourage conversing in the background. Indeed, even the star, which shines low above the ruined roof of the stable is clearly an element which interested Berruguete and which he reused for his own composition.