The main focus of this lavish triptych is the silent conversation between the Christ child and the oldest Magus, Melchior, who offers the Savior his gift of fragrant myrrh. As suggested by his distinctive features, the figure of Melchior may be a disguised portrait of the triptych's original owner. By assuming the role of a biblical figure, the patron could experience a deeper engagement with the story depicted. In addition, such a portrait would identify the sitter as a prosperous citizen of the cosmopolitan city of Antwerp, a leader in the trade and production of the luxurious cloths and gold vessels so carefully depicted here.
At the end of the 15th century, the port of Bruges silted up, leading to the transfer of her foreign banking houses to Antwerp, which soon emerged as Europe's preeminent financial capital. Merchants and financers from all over Europe, Africa and the East flocked there to capitalize on the commerce of costly spices, metalwork, finished cloth and other luxurious goods. Bustling with exotic foreigners, valuable wares and other wonders, Antwerp offered a fertile ground for artists in search of inspiration and a lucrative market for their creations.
By the early 16th century, Antwerp had a distinctive native artistic tradition, led by the triumvirate of Quentin Metsys, Joos van Cleve and the Master of Frankfurt, all of the generation born in the 1460s and 1470s. These masters were joined by artists from other Netherlandish centers, attracted to Antwerp by its more liberal and meritocratic guild policies. It was Metsys and his contemporaries who first achieved world renown for the art of Antwerp, setting the stage for the Antwerp Mannerists in the next generation.
Antwerp Mannerism, of which this triptych is a splendid and well-preserved example, combines traditional Flemish naturalism with exuberant decorative details -- especially in the form of exotic costumes -- and capricious architectural inventions, often Italianate in accent. As revealed in this composition, the commitment to capturing realistic details is allied with a heightened interest in movement, here conveyed by active poses and lively drapery like the bearded Caspar's billowing cape. The high degree of finish with which the faces are painted would have been recognized as hallmarks of quality, reflecting the exacting standards of the highly competitive Antwerp art market.
Although formerly attributed to the Master of the van Groote Adoration, the present work was identified by Dr. Peter van den Brink, on the basis of photographs, as being by the hand of the so-called Master of the Antwerp Adoration. He has noted in particular the resemblance of the elder of the three Kings to that in the Master's name-piece, the Adoration triptych in the Koninklijk Museum voor Schone Kunsten, Antwerp (see P. van den Brink et al., ExtravagAnt! A Forgotten Chapter of Antwerp Painting 1500-1530, Antwerp and Maastricht, 2005, cat. no. 68). The present triptych escaped the attention of Max J. Friedländer, who laid the groundwork for the study of early 16th-century Antwerp painting with his seminal article 'Die Antwerpner Manieristen von 1520' (Jahrbuch der Königlich Preussischen Kunstsammlungen, 1915, pp. 65-91), in which he identified five anonymous artists who whould become central to our understanding of painting in 16th-century Antwerp. The Master of the Antwerp Adoration was among these artists, a group that Friedländer later expanded to include nine personalities. (M. Friedländer, Early Netherlandish Painting, Leyden and Brussels, XI, 1974, The Antwerp Mannerists. Adriaen Ysenbrandt).
The Adoration of the Magi is the single most popular subject for triptychs produced in Antwerp in the period 1505-30 (see P. van den Brink, op. cit., p. 212). The popularity of the subject must have had a special significance, and Dan Ewing has convincingly argued that the Three Magi -- travelers bearing luxurious gifts from distant lands -- held a deep resonance for the prosperous merchant traders of Antwerp, the mainstay of its economic ascendancy and perhaps the most important group of art patrons in the city (see D. Ewing, 'An Antwerp Triptych': Three Examples of the Artistic and Economic Impact of the Early Antwerp Art Market', in Antwerp: Artworks and Audiences, Northampton, 1994; and D. Ewing, 'Magi and Merchants: Civic Iconography and Local Culture in Antwerp Adorations, 1505-1609', Mobile, 2002). Amongst other evidence Ewing brings forward is the striking fact that the traditional names of the Three Magi - Balthasar, Casper and Melchior - occurred frequently in Antwerp merchant families, giving the Magi the status of patron saints.
Mistakenly illustrated in a 1990 publication on Flemish paintings in Italy, the present triptych is not to be confused with the Adoration given to a 'Collaboratore di Pieter Coeck van Aelst' in the Galleria Regionale di Sicilia, Palermo (inv. 71 or 72; L. Collobi Ragghianti, op. cit., no. 376 and under no. 382; Delogu, 1977, p. 46; Marlier, 1969, p. 157). This confusion arose partly from the popularity of the Adoration as a subject, and the resultant number and variety of Adoration triptychs that are to be found in European museums. It is to be noted, however, that relatively few are of such high quality as the present, superlative example of the type.