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Examining the Adoration of the Magi

Fig. 1. Southern Netherlandish painter, The Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1500. Oil on wood, 29 1/8 x 25 5/8 in. (74 x 65.1 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase 1871 (71.100)

Laura Hartman
2013–2014 Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Paintings Conservation

Christine Seidel
2013–2014 Slifka Foundation Interdisciplinary fellow, Department of European Paintings


The Metropolitan's Adoration of the Magi with half-length figures (fig. 1) was painted in the southern Netherlands, probably in Antwerp, at the end of the fifteenth century, but little else is known regarding the circumstances of its creation. A recent conservation treatment provided the opportunity to examine the painting and to investigate the stages of its production. The version of the Adoration of the Magi now in the Statens Museum for Kunst (SMK) in Copenhagen (fig. 2) follows exactly the same model as the Metropolitan's painting. This close resemblance prompted examination of both paintings by American and Danish teams. The following remarks present the findings of the comparative examination of the Metropolitan painting and its "twin" in Copenhagen. Conservators used various non-invasive techniques in order to examine the process of creation of both paintings, and to explore the methods of workshop production in the southern Netherlands at the turn of the century.

Fig. 2. Southern Netherlandish painter, Adoration of the Magi, ca. 1500. Oil on wood, 73.5 x 72.5 cm. Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen (inv. 235)

Neither of the densely packed paintings has ever been firmly attributed to any artist. However, several of the figures are based on those depicted in the Monforte Altarpiece painted by Hugo van der Goes, (Gemäldegalerie Berlin), one of the leading masters of the Ghent school in the second half of the fifteenth century. Toward the end of his career, Hugo van der Goes developed half-length compositions that zoom dramatically into scenes and are intended to heighten the devotional experience of the viewer. Based on the similarity of the perspective, as well as the figures, scholars have argued that the Metropolitan's Adoration of the Magi is based on a lost original by Hugo van der Goes. The primary question of this project was not attribution but rather how and when the painting was created.

At first sight, apart from the differences in condition, the Metropolitan and Copenhagen panels look exactly alike. Even the little scene in the background depicting Herod's soldiers has the same number of figures in the same poses. When comparing the backgrounds, it appears as if only the clouds have moved from one painting to the other.

On closer inspection, however, the first striking visual difference is the balustrade in the foreground; in the Copenhagen panel it is dark brown, while in the Metropolitan painting it presents as a light blue marbling. Other smaller differences occur in the background: in the Metropolitan version, for example, a rope is wrapped around the horns of the ox, whereas it is missing in the Copenhagen version (fig. 3). The figures and the folds of their drapery however, are nearly identical. Differences in their facial expressions are due to a different artistic approach rather than to a different set of models.

Fig. 3. Details from the Metropolitan painting (left) and the Copenhagen panel (right)

The only significant alteration is the appearance of the youngest king, Balthazar, on the right. Both his golden jewelry and the decorative finial of his gift—a globe capped with tiny figures in worship—have been changed. His gaze and facial expression have also shifted from one painting to the other (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Details of the Youngest King from the Metropolitan painting (left) and the Copenhagen panel (right)


In both paintings, the panel supports are made from Baltic or Polish oak. X-radiographs were made of the paintings to investigate their construction and preparation (fig. 5). X-rays pass through the entire object, which is how it is possible to detect materials that are not only attached to the surface and back, but also incorporated into the inner structure. For example, metals or metal-containing pigments block the X-rays to varying degrees depending on the type of elements and amount of material present, appearing whiter as density or radio-opacity increases. This technique provided visual evidence of the construction of the support and the subsequent preparatory and paint layers.

Fig. 5. X-radiographs of the Metropolitan painting (left) and the Copenhagen panel (right)

The X-radiographs show that both panels are made of three vertical wooden boards that were aligned by wooden dowels during the gluing of the joins (fig. 6). Dendrochronological examination—or tree-ring dating—was also performed and indicated the earliest plausible date of creation for both paintings to be about 1480. It also showed that all of the boards used for the Metropolitan panel came from the same tree as the boards that were used in the Copenhagen panel. These findings strengthen the hypothesis that both paintings were not only made around the same time but also likely in the same workshop.

Fig. 6. Detail from the X-radiograph of the Copenhagen Adoration. Horizontal dowels are circled in red.

Ground Preparation

A ground was applied to prepare the panel for the underdrawing and painting. In Northern Europe, grounds were usually made with white chalk in an animal-glue binder, furnishing an even surface for the underdrawing.

To mark the placement of the two framing columns in the Metropolitan painting, incisions were made that extend down to the ground. Although the ground, likey composed of chalk in an animal glue-binder, appears dark when X-rayed, a thin lead pigment containing (and therefore more radio-opaque) priming layer above the ground appears whiter when X-rayed. This difference in radio-opacity, or absence of material in the incised lines, allows them to be seen more clearly in the X-radiograph than in normal light (fig. 7). These incisions were probably made during or just prior to the underdrawing phase to establish the composition.

Fig. 7. Detail from the X-radiograph of the Metropolitan panel showing the incised lines.


Early Netherlandish panel painters often used a liquid carbon-based medium to draw the composition on the chalk ground. Sometimes, thin, colored priming layers were applied to fix the underdrawing and seal the ground, and in the case of the Adoration of the Magi a thin gray-white layer is present. The build-up of these layers is visible in areas of surface damage and can be seen with greater clarity under the polarizing light microscope. This photomicrograph (fig. 8) from an area in Joseph's red robe shows the stratigraphy of the layers: 1) the ground layer; 2) the black underdrawing; 3) the gray-white priming layer; and 4) the uppermost red paint layer.

Fig. 8. Photomicrograph showing: 1) the ground; 2) the underdrawing; 3) the gray-white priming layer; 4) the red paint from Joseph's robe

Infrared reflectography (IRR) is used to image paint layers. The relative transparency of a paint layer when imaged with IRR depends on its components. Using this technique, carbon-based materials will absorb the infrared radiation and will appear black. IRR is particularly helpful for studying the underdrawings of painting, as carbon-containing media, such as charcoal or carbon-based inks, were often employed for this initial drawing. IRR can also reveal alterations made in the painting process that are not distinctly visible in an X-radiograph.

IRR revealed a summarized underdrawing in both Adoration paintings (fig. 9). Executed with a relatively broad brush in a liquid medium, the contour lines in both paintings appear quickly sketched and somewhat wavering. The preparatory drawing is limited almost exclusively to the outlines, and only occasionally did the painter(s) employ hatching to denote shadow or forms.

Fig. 9. Infrared reflectogram of the Metropolitan painting.

The close similarities between the underdrawings, even in areas of alteration, suggest that the liquid underdrawing detected with IRR was the second step in the elaboration of a transferred design that was copied first in a medium less detectable and thus hardly visible in the reflectogram. The first compositional outline on each painting was either applied in a dry medium such as charcoal, which was then brushed off after having been reinforced by the liquid lines, or it was a very thin, traced line drawing that was subsequently covered up by the thicker liquid brushstrokes. Thus, the underdrawing copied the workshop cartoon meticulously but at the same time visible to serve as a guideline when the paint layers were applied. A fine dry medium would have quickly been covered up by the paint.

Comparative examination of the infrared reflectograms further enforced the idea that the paintings are based on the same cartoon, or source image, which suggests that they were created at the same time. It is possible to identify compositional changes that have been made to both paintings in the underdrawing stage. For example, the shape of both ox faces has shifted, rendering the animal more slender and naturalistic in the final compositions (fig. 10).

Fig. 10.  Details from the infrared reflectogram of the Metropolitan panel (left) and the Copenhagen panel (right). An interesting observation also is that the rope around the Copenhagen ox is present in the underdrawing phase but has been left out in the final painted picture, yet retained in the Met painting, as shown previously (fig. 3).

Paint Layers

In both panels, the paint was applied with small strokes of color utilizing a somewhat expedited painting process. For the flesh, a warm, thin, midtone was applied first, followed by consecutive applications of lighter and darker tones. The final highlights were applied with thicker, more bodied paint, and thinner, darker shadows and contour lines were applied last. Although the specific paint handling in the two panels is different, the use of certain specific paint application techniques are found in both, suggesting further that they originated in the same workshop.

For example, to model flesh and enhance facial features, small hatches of brown paint were employed as a final shading step in both paintings. The brown hatched lines of the Metropolitan picture, however, are shorter and more linear compared to the longer and generally thinner lines of the Copenhagen picture. Close examination of the oldest king's face, for example, shows that the physiognomies of the figures in the Metropolitan painting appear more graphic and less luminous than those in the Copenhagen painting due to this difference in handling of the paint (fig. 11).

Fig. 11. Details of the oldest king's face in the Metropolitan panel (left) and the Copenhagen panel (right)

Despite the detailed characterization of the facial features, the painting techniques together with the underdrawing suggest a handling and execution that sought to expedite the painting process. These time-saving features help to explain how these rather large-format paintings could be produced in greater numbers.

Highlights on the precious metals, although again created with rather roughly applied strokes of lighter and darker tones over a midtone base, create an effect of precise reflection amid the dark garments of the figures (fig. 12). The simplified brocades are contrasted with satin fabrics, which are painted in rough parallel brushstrokes to create the appearance of a smooth and gleaming surface. These effects add significantly to the animation of the painted surface.

Fig. 12. Photomicrographs taken of the Metropolitan Adoration showing various textures and surface effects. From left: Flesh from the middle finger knuckle of the oldest king; coins from a gift; jewels and pearls on a brocade fabric decoration

A surprise was revealed by the X-radiograph of the Copenhagen panel, explaining the difference in color of the balustrades. Two coats of arms had been painted on the balustrade in the foreground (fig. 13) and were probably early additions made after the painting had been finished. They were subsequently covered with the dark brown paint now seen. This later alteration to the painted surface accounts for the most striking difference between the Metropolitan and the Copenhagen panels.

Fig. 13. Detail from the X-radiograph of the Copenhagen panel showing the two unidentified coats of arms revealed, which are outlined in red.

Although the exact workshop in which these two paintings were created is still unknown, it is clear from the examination that they were made in the same workshop and likely at the same time. The set serves as a dynamic representation of workshop practice in southern Netherlands. The working techniques and materials identified during the examination speak to a specific and interesting time and place, revealing clues about the workshop and the artists.


This project would not have been possible without the generosity of the Statens Museum for Kunst. We would especially like to thank Troels Filtenborg and Jørgen Wadum for organizing our visit and the imaging of the painting and for their knowledgeable input and collaboration throughout the project. We would also like to express a sincere gratitude to Maryan Ainsworth and our colleauges in the Paintings Conservation Department at the Metropolitan Museum for their mentorship and expertise.