An early and quite precocious work by one of Spain’s greatest artists takes a new approach to a venerated moment in Christian art. The broadly expansive composition depicts the Adoration of the Magi, telling the story of the three wise men, or Magi, who traveled great distances to honor the child Jesus in Bethlehem. The moving scene is one of a large cycle, or sequence, of mural paintings relating the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The cycle was commissioned in 1773 by the monks of the Carthusian monastery of Aula Dei, just outside Zaragoza, Spain. Painted along the upper wall surface of the church, the series begins with a scene of Mary’s parents above the entrance, continues with her birth and marriage, and ends with the presentation of Jesus at the temple. The Adoration of the Magi, seen here, occupies a prominent place in the axial crossing of the church.
Born in the nearby town of Fuendetodos in 1746, Francisco Goya was a native of the region of Aragon. After augmenting his formal training with study in Italy, he returned to Spain, where he received important commissions for religious institutions near his birthplace. His work there is thus a kind of homecoming as well as a nascent projection of his long artistic career.
It should be noted that the biblical passage describing the Adoration of the Magi is limited to the most basic details of the event. Only much later did these intrepid travelers receive the traditional names of Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Even so, the inconsistent assignment of these names to the Magi has muddled the understanding of their individual characters. Their exemplification of the three ages of man, as well as their distinct geographical origins, also entailed a lengthy process of commentary and debate.
Goya imagined the theme of the Adoration of the Magi expansively to accommodate the unusual width of the pictorial field. Set within the octagonal space under the dome, the scene is distributed across three angled faces of the wall. On the left face are gathered two huddled groups of retainers who have accompanied the three Magi to the holy site. The opposite face is occupied by the holy family sheltered within the manger. Mary holds the baby Jesus as Caspar, usually considered the oldest of the three wise men, kneels before him in adoration. The old magus bears a cup of gold pieces, symbolic of the regal authority of the Christ child.
The composition gathers force in the middle face of the scene. Instead of the nearly claustrophobic backgrounds on either side, the ambient broadens into a view of the pale night sky. Two rock walls form a declivity through which the camel train of the Magi climbs up to the holy site. In the center of this zone stands the second, middle-aged magus, Melchior, clad in a great white robe. He holds his traditionally attributed gift of frankincense, a reference to Christ’s divinity, and prepares to be received by the child.
Between Gaspar and Melchior, the young black magus ascends the hill leading to the manger. Often, but by no means always, he is called Balthasar. Above him shines the guiding star of Bethlehem, its rays inclined at the same angle as his gaze toward the holy family. A servant carrying his gift of myrrh follows behind. An extremely costly spice associated with the anointment of the dead, myrrh alludes to Christ’s burial after his crucifixion. Although it is generally associated with mourning and loss, for Christians it is a sign of the resurrection of Christ as ruler of the universe. In this respect, the black magus brings the most exalted of gifts to the Christ child.
The animated figure of the black king provides the emotional key to the whole theme of the Adoration of the Magi. Though set farther back in space than his companions, his arrival is dramatically heightened by his expansive gesture of wonder before the holy infant. Silhouetted against the glow of the star, the black king metaphorically emerges from the darkness of spiritual ignorance into the light of revealed truth. His eyes, wide with surprise, convey a state of rapturous spiritual transport, a device Goya would use often in his career to evoke states of insuperable emotion. The black king acts as the lone recipient of sudden epiphany. He therefore occupies a privileged place in the drama, signifying the bestowal of divine redemption to the furthest reaches of the world.
The resplendent dress of the black king reinforces his special role in the story of the Magi. He wears an elaborate, multilayered scarlet ensemble, enhanced by silver earrings and an elaborate, jeweled pendant on his chest. The red-plumed crown held in his right hand and the rich adornments of his dress lend a vaguely Oriental air to his presence. Instead of an exotic figment of the artist’s imagination, however, the king’s regalia directly alludes to the authority of the Catholic Church.
The black king is clad investments virtually identical to those appearing in a portrait by Goya of the archbishop of Toledo. The youngest magus wears a full-length robe covered below the knees by an alb trimmed with a richly worked, gilded border. A voluminous, capelike scapular descends from shoulders to wrists. By means of this double reference to both royal and spiritual authority, Goya presents the young black magus as a formally sanctioned priest-king, destined to bring back the tidings of the birth of the savior to his homeland.
Once, European hopes for military assistance had been pinned on the advent of another figure who combined in his person both lay and ecclesiastical power: the distant, ever-elusive figure of the African ruler Prester John. By the time Goya painted this scene, any real credence in the existence of Prester John had long ceased. The figure of the black magus, however, may retain the last, anachronistic recall of this once-storied ruler, a link with that far-off power that remains fixed in the Western imagination.
The Image of the Black Archive & Library resides at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.