Sandro Botticelli, a Florentine, painted several versions of the theme of the Adoration of the Magi. The Magi, or wise men, were particularly venerated in Florence, as one of the city's leading religious confraternities was dedicated to them. The members of the confraternity took part in pageants organized every five years, when the journey to Bethlehem of the Magi and their retinue, often numbering in the hundreds, was re-enacted through the streets of Florence.

The Washington _Adoration_ was probably painted in Rome, where Pope Sixtus IV had called the artist to fresco the walls of the Sistine Chapel, along with other leading Florentine masters of the day. Botticelli's linear and decorative _Adoration_ is set in the ruin of a classical temple instead of a humble stable. This setting emphasizes the belief that Christianity arose from the ruins of paganism, and suggests a continuity between ancient and Christian philosophy.

Earlier Renaissance paintings of this theme, such as the Gallery's tondo by Fra Angelico and Fra Lippi, emphasize the pomp and pageantry of the scene. As painted by Botticelli in this late version, the religious aspect is stressed. Each figure is an expression of piety, the postures of their hands and bodies revealing devotion, reverence and contemplation on the divine mystery before them.


  • Title: The Adoration of the Magi
  • Creator: Sandro Botticelli
  • Date Created: c. 1478/1482
  • Physical Dimensions: painted surface: 68 x 102 cm (26 3/4 x 40 3/16 in.) overall size: 70 x 104.2 cm (27 9/16 x 41 in.) framed: 98.4 x 132.1 x 8.3 cm (38 3/4 x 52 x 3 1/4 in.)
  • Provenance: Said to have been acquired from a private collection in Rome by the engraver Peralli.[1] Dominique Vivant Denon [1747-1825], Paris;[2] sold 1808 to Czar Alexander I of Russia, [1777-1825], Saint Petersburg; Imperial Hermitage Gallery, Saint Petersburg;[3] purchased January 1931 through (Matthiesen Gallery, Berlin; P. & D. Colnaghi & Co., London and New York; and M. Knoedler & Co., New York and London) by Andrew W. Mellon, Pittsburgh and Washington, D.C.;[4] deeded 5 June 1931 to The A.W. Mellon Educational and Charitable Trust, Pittsburgh;[5] gift 1937 to NGA. [1] Information given by E. Brüningk and Andrei Somov, _Ermitage Impérial. Catalogue de la Galerie des Tableaux. Les Écoles d'Italie et d'Espagne_, 3rd ed., Saint Petersburg, 1891: 73: "d'après le témoignage du baron Vivant Denon." No reference to an engraver named Peralli could be found in any of the generally used art dictionaries. It is know, however, that Botticelli's small panel _St. Augustine in His Study_ (no. 1473 in the Uffizi in Florence), was acquired in 1779 through Piero Pieralli (see John Fleming, "The Hugfords in Florence," _The Connoisseur_ 136 [1955]: 206). On Denon see the following note. [2] Actually Brüningk and Somov 1891: 73 say only that the painting was acquired "par l'entremise" ("through the intermediation") of Denon. It is quite possible, however, that Denon--who, apart from being the creator of the Musée Napoleon, also had a very large private collection of paintings, art objects, and antiquities of his own (see Jean Chatelain, _Dominique Vivant Denon et le Louvre de Napoleon_, Paris, 1973: 260)--was already in possession of _The Adoration of the Magi_ when in 1808 he was entrusted with augmenting the Russian Imperial collections (see Vladimir Levinson-Lessing, _Istoria kartinskoi galerei Ermitaga, 1764-1917_, Leningrad, 1985: 138). [3] The list of abbreviations for Brüiningk and Somov (1891: xxxv) and Andrei Ivanovich Somov (_Ermitage Impérial. Catalogue de la Galerie des Tableaux. Les Écoles d'Italie et d'Espagne_, 2nd ed., Saint Petersburg, 1899 [3rd ed., 1909]: xxxiv) states that the sign "A," included in the entry relative to the NGA painting, means it was acquired by Czar Paul I (1754-1801). Yet this identification is obviously an error, since besides the fact that Paul I was notoriously un-interested in art collecting, the very date of the acquisition of _The Adoration of the Magi_ for the Hermitage, seven years after the death of Paul I, proves that the painting entered the Imperial collection by request of his successor. [4] See note 5. According to John Walker, _Self-Portrait with Donors_, Washington, D.C., 1974: 116, Matthiessen announced to his associates on 9 February 1931 that he had succeeded in buying _The Adoration of the Magi_. Art periodicals had begun to divulge the information by October 1931 ("Hermitage Art Reported Sold to A.W. Mellon," _Art News_ 30 [17 October 1931]: 3, 13, which quotes an article that appeared earlier that month in _The New York Herald Tribune_; see also "Editorial: Breaking up the Hermitage," _The Burlington Magazine_ 63, no. 365 [August 1933]: 53, but the acquisition was officially announced only in 1935 ("Mellon Holdings are Announced by Knoedler & Co.," _Art News_ 33, no. 21 [23 February 1935]: 3-5; "Rundschau. Amerika," _Pantheon_ [April 1935]: 150). [5] The Mellon purchase date and the date deeded to the Mellon Trust are according to Mellon collection records in NGA curatorial files and David Finley's notebook (donated to the National Gallery of Art in 1977, now in the Gallery Archives). In 2012 The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles, acquired the M. Knoedler & Co. records (accession number 2012.M.54), and in 2013 processed portions of the archive were first made publicly available. An entry from a January 1931 Knoedler sales book confirms the sale to Mellon (on-line illustration of the sales book page, in Karen Meyer-Roux, "Treasures from the Vault: Knoedler, Mellon, and an Unlikely Sale," _The Getty Iris_ [http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/author/kmeyerroux/], 30 July 2013).
  • Medium: tempera and oil on poplar panel

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