With its playful fantasy and vibrant colours, this triptych is a characteristic work of the Antwerp school. In the first half of the 15th century, the city of Antwerp witnessed an artistic florescence later referred to as ‘Antwerp Mannerism’ by the great historian of early Netherlandish painting Max J. Friedländer, and eloquently described by Peter van der Brink as ‘a period situated between old traditions and new developments, where rules were bent and a giddy sense of freedom and novelty had play, in a town that rapidly changed from being merely provincial to being the economic and cultural capital of the western world.’ (P. van der Brink, ExtravagAnt! A Forgotten Chapter of Antwerp Painting, 1500-1530, Schoten, 2005, p. 6).
A new paradigm in the art trade and production emerged in this period, with a growing number of pictures created for the open market, accessible to a clientele that reached beyond the aristocracy and upper clergy to include the merchant classes. Within this new category of paintings, the theme of the Adoration of the Magi met with remarkable success and enduring popularity, building on seminal precedents such as Jan Gossaert’s monumental Adoration in the National Gallery, London, an influence visible in this triptych in the arrangement of the central group formed by the Virgin, Child and recumbent Magi. It is however to another great name of Antwerp mannerism, Jan de Beer, that this triptych seems most indebted. The crumbling palatial setting with elaborate arches echoing the curved shape of the panel, together with the columns and pilasters decorated with grotesque reliefs, are all very reminiscent of the central panel of a triptych of the same subject by de Beer (Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera). Also similar to the Brera Adoration is the motif of the green curtain attached to a pilaster, forming a sort of cloth of honour behind the Virgin. This device also appears in an Adoration last on the New York market in 1997, in the Barber Institute’s Joseph and the Suitors and the Cluny Museum Adoration, all attributed to Jan de Beer. However the figures here are more loosely painted and less accentuated than those generally associated with Jan de Beer, and the similarities are more indicative of the close associations shared by the Antwerp mannerists than of shared authorship.
Although for the time being the artist behind this triptych must remain anonymous, Professor Dan Ewing and Dr. Peter van den Brink in their 2005-06 exhibition on Antwerp mannerism have pointed out that the triptych may well be by the same hand as that responsible for a central panel of an Adoration triptych in the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum, Cologne, noting that the two are ‘remarkably close in style and decorative principles’. Furthermore, they identified the figure of Balthasar in the left wing as deriving directly, in ‘his stance, his bowed forearm, cap, collar, angle of sceptre, even the gather of drapery under his right hand’ from that in the drawing of the same subject, datable to 1513, by Adriaen van Overbeke in the Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin.