The Master of the Turin Adoration was first named by Max Friedländer in 1927 ('Drei Niederländische Maler in Genua', Zeitschrift für bildende Kunst, XVI, Leipzig, 1927-8, pp. 273-9) after an altarpiece of The Adoration of the Magi in the Galleria Sabauda, Turin (inv. no. 309). That, he suggested, was part of a polyptych that also included two panels of the same height, depicting The Legends of Saints Agnes and Catherine, in the Musée des Beaux-Arts, Strasbourg (subsequently destroyed by fire in 1947). Godfridus Hoogewerff in 1935 rejected that reconstruction, but accepted the attribution, adding to the group another two panels of the same subject as the Strasbourg pictures in the Palazzo Ex-Reale, Genoa. He suggested convincingly that the Master was an artist working under the influence of Gerard David and probably based in Genoa (Vlaamsche Kunst en Italiaansche Renaissance, Mechelen and Antwerp, 1935, pp. 99-100).
The influence of Netherlandish art on Italy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is extremely well documented and dates back to as early as the 1430s, perhaps most famously with the commission of Van Eyck's Annunciation triptych by Battista Lomellino. By Gerard David's time, there was a long-established and very considerable trade in paintings exported from the region to Italy, and particularly to Genoa. Within that trade, pictures from Bruges seem to have had a particularly high standing - presumably because of its historical position - exemplified in the proud inscription on the della Costa Saint Andrew triptych: 'HOC OPUS FIERI FECIT ANDREAS DE COSTE A°o 1499 BRUGIS'. The number of works and commissions from the port city has led scholars to posit a community of northern artists active there (e.g. Hoogewerff, 'Pittori fiamminghi in Liguria nel secolo XVI (Gherardo David, Giovanni Provost, Joos van der Beke, Giovanni Massys)', Commentari, 12, pp. 176-94).
The Master of the Turin Adoration is one of the hands that has been suggested as belonging to that hypothetical group. The present picture, which interestingly also comes from a Torinese collection, is attributed to him on the basis of its close similarities with others of the Master's given oeuvre. Clearly Davidian in its influences (for example the figural type of the Emperor), it shares with the Turin Adoration and the Christ carrying the Cross by the Master in the John G. Johnson Collection, Philadelphia, the same rather distinctive horses, with their gimlet eyes, pronounced fetlocks, arched necks, mannered mouths biting the reins, and, most idiosyncratically and common to all three works, the centre parting of the crest of the mane. In addition the slightly unusual construction of the horse turned to look straight out of the picture, with the rider's left hand held on the right of the horse's neck, holding the reins, recurs in both this and the Philadelphia pictures. Furthermore, both pictures share a commonly distinctive architectural format, with pronounced vertical lines and high, narrow arches, a feature evident also in the Genoa panels, whilst the figural type in the present right foreground, with elongated, doll-like legs and quite hard features, recurs throughout the Master's work.
The subject matter is taken from the story of the Discovery of the True Cross, a medieval legend that existed in a number of different sources, tracing the history of Christ's Cross from the Garden of Eden down to the time of the Emperor Heraclius (c. 575-641). The present scene shows Heraclius returning from his decisively successful campaign of 627 against the Sassanid Emperor Chosroes (Khosrau II), who had invaded the Empire in 613-4, capturing Jerusalem and seizing a fragment of the True Cross amongst other Christian relics kept there. The legend held that, as Heraclius returned in victorious procession to Jerusalem with the fragment of the True Cross (here, as was conventionally the case in art, depicted as the entire Cross), an Angel appeared over the city walls, forbidding him entry through the gate (which turned into solid stone) and reminding him of the contrasting humility of Christ's entry into the city. Humbled, the Emperor dismounted and either carried the relic on foot or mounted on an ass, whereupon the wall turned back to a gate. Distinctive here is the figure in the right foreground and the coat-of-arms; this would appear to be that of a guild, presumably represented by the action of the figure - possibly a skinner - and the establishment of the source of the arms would no doubt shed further light on the details of the original commission, to which it must refer.