Vividly colored and richly detailed, this exquisite painting on vellum is a fanciful and very human imagining of the theme of the Adoration of the Magi. The three kings have arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts: the eldest has removed his crown and kneels to kiss the feet of the Christ child, who gleefully inspects his offering. A weary Joseph sits behind, resting his chin on his staff; the ox to his left bays beside a delicate cloth hung up to dry, presumably just washed in the brook at lower right. The manger, ingeniously constructed from trees rooted to the ground, is set before a minutely rendered landscape, whose lush greenery, rocky cliffs embedded with stone castles, and valley engulfed in a soft violet mist attest to the artist's skill. The remaining characters in the foreground are also meticulously described, such as the figure in an unusual feathered hat at center, attempting to calm the camels that have borne the entourage this far, a dwarf leading a monkey at lower left, and a young boy climbing a tree to better view the excitement.
Giovanni Battista Castello, called il Genovese, is known for his elegant miniatures which are, like the present work, highly finished in detail and color. Lauded by 16th-century poets and writers for his artistic gifts, Castello undertook commissions for such prestigious patrons as Philip II of Spain and, during her time in Genoa, Margaret of Austria. The present Adoration, with its brilliant colors and slim figures, probably dates to early in Castello's career, prior to 1600. The fortified mountainous scene at background left also points to such a dating, as it is partly inspired by Dürer's engraving of St. Eustace (fig. 1), which Castello may have seen in the collection of Philip II at El Escorial, where he was working c. 1584-1589. The composition of the present picture can be compared to several Adoration scenes by Castello, including one in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (inv. 238) and another that is signed and dated 1599 (see M. Bonzi, Battista Castello il Genovese, Genoa, 1931, p. 84), lending further support to the theory that the present work was made in the last decade of the 16th century.
According to an inscription on the reverse, the present Adoration was by the early 19th century in the collection of Pope Gregory XVI (1765-1846), whose passion for art led him to found two museums in the Vatican and one in the Lateran. It was under his supervision that the Pauline Chapel was restored and the Basilica of St. Paul's Outside-the-Walls, destroyed in the fire of 1823, was reconstructed.
(fig. 1) Albrecht Dürer, Saint Eustace, (B. 57; M., Holl. 60; S.M.S. 32), Christie's, New York, 29 January 2013, lot 30.