WANDERING around the National Gallery looking for seasonal paintings that might prompt a sermon or two, I came across Jan Gossaert’s Adoration of the Kings. It is an extraordinary work, and one that, I remember, Alan Bennett singled out when he was invited to name four paintings that he would want schoolchildren to discover.
He liked it, he said, because there was such a great deal going on in it that it was hard to take it all in. When writing about it for the London Review of Books, he also noted that — as in many nativity scenes of the period — Joseph is depicted as taking rather a back seat, and looks old and grey. Bennett imagined a conversation between the Wise Men:
“Who’s the guy with the grey hair?’”
“That’s the husband.”
“Oh my God!”
THE Adoration of the Kings was painted by Gossaert in about 1510 for the Lady chapel in the Benedictine abbey of Geraardsbergen, near Brussels. Gossaert had visited Rome a couple of years earlier, and was influenced by classical Roman art and the Italian Renaissance; he fused his new enthusiasm uniquely into the traditions and techniques of Northern European art.
Today, he is particularly known for his technical brilliance and the arresting power of his skill. What strikes you as you enter the room in the gallery where the painting is hung is Gossaert’s dazzling use of colour. The blues, reds, golds, and pinks are beautifully balanced in the work, and the same colour is never repeated exactly. With a limited range of pigments, Gossaert achieves his incredibly subtle variations.
The flotilla of angels in the sky, lit by the starlight, make a rainbow of hope across the scene — except for the one who is hiding behind the wall near Joseph, almost invisible. If there is such a thing as an introvert angel, this is it. It is somehow reassuring to know that he has a place there, too.
AS IS often the case, the nativity scene is set in the midst of the ruins of a collapsed building, a world in need of repair; in the foreground we catch sight of flowers and green plants whose life forces its way through the broken pavement.
In the centre of the painting is Mary, with a very alert child on her lap. The baby is holding a gold coin, looking almost as if he is giving a communion wafer to a believer. We are prompted to the time, later in his life, when he is handed another coin, and tells people that they should give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. We sense here very deeply that the kneeling man is indeed giving to God what belongs to him.
Money, in this scene, is just a child’s plaything, but close behind the child is a donkey, similar to the one that will later carry Jesus to his destiny. In the frieze on the wall you can just make out Abraham and his son Isaac, to press home this theme of future sacrifice. The new life here is being tuned to heaven’s humility rather than to what the poet Les Murray calls “the Kingdom of Flaunt”.
As I saw the donkey there munching some grass in the background, I was reminded of U. A. Fanthorpe’s poem “What the Donkey Saw”, in which the donkey reflects on the overcrowding, not in the inn but in the stable, “what with the shepherds, Magi, Mary, Joseph, the heavenly host”: it is, indeed, very crowded in Gossaert’s scene.
I counted 32 figures, including a shepherd holding a houlette (a sort of trowel on a stick, used for herding sheep), and the tired-looking man hanging out of a window, who might well be saying, “Don’t you know what time it is? Some of us are trying to get some sleep.”
OF COURSE, three people particularly stand out: the beguiling visitors that here are “kings” but were originally referred to as being magoi and, therefore, either Zoroastrian priests, or probably more like fortune-tellers — star-gazers — from Mesopotamia (what we now know as Iraq and Kuwait, with parts of Syria and Turkey).
Nowhere in Matthew’s Gospel does it actually say that there were three of these magoi, and an early tradition had it that they actually came in droves to the stable. But, as we know, the three gifts mentioned in the Gospel led to the notion of there being three donors; Gossaert identifies them as representing the three parts of the known world, and with names that had become established around the ninth century.
Caspar, with a rather hairy wart on his cheek, kneels before the Virgin, his name embroidered around his hat in case you need help. Melchior is just behind him, with a retinue of attendants; and on the left of the picture is Balthasar in a magnificent red cloak and a stole that has embroidered on it a prayer to the Virgin. To this day, at Epiphany, their initials of C, M, and B are placed over doors to represent the initials of Christus mansionem benedicat: Christ bless this home.
Personally, I prefer the mystical names that they were given by Syrian Christians — Larvandad, Hormisdas, and Gushnasaph — although their Armenian names are also wonderfully evocative: Kagpha, Badadakharida, and Badadilma.
In medieval times, they were often called on in prayer as protectors against the bites of mad dogs; so it is good to see two small white dogs right under their feet at the bottom of the painting.
THE gifts, which are precariously held by the kings, have had various symbolic meanings ascribed to them since the fourth century. I like the idea that, if they were more like magicians than monarchs, laying down their props of glittering gold and smoke was, in fact, ending their livelihoods built on falsity and illusion, and leaving them ready to go home “by another road”.
Today, those gifts are still haunting and strangely unsettling. Gold represents our economic interests, and all the values we see that we live by when we look at our bank statements. For many of us, it represents anxiety and worry. For others, it symbolises indulgence, fraud, and injustice. But it also stands for security, home, job. Gold is heavy with so much. In the straw, it becomes less significant.
Incense is traditionally a sign of prayer, but, like all things with holy potential, it can act as a smokescreen. Piety can curdle and hide fears, truths, honesty, and justice. How easy is it to lay down parts of religion to discover greater parts of faith?
Myrrh is a preservative of dead bodies: it reminds us that we all have a side to us that wants to keep everything as it is, to enforce the status quo (even if it is not working), to keep life down in deathly ways.
Sin can sometimes be surprisingly conservative, as it stops us trusting God to turn our full stops into commas. This needs leaving in the stable, too. The journey of the kings is very much our journey: a genuine assault on our ego, brought about by the magnetism of mysterious holiness.
GOSSAERT’s painting captures the moment when three lives were changed by the birth of Christ in a Bethlehem outhouse, as well as his birth in them. We do not see what happened next when, in the words of T. S. Eliot, they were back in “the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods”. We do know, though, that — having left behind such weighted goods from accumulated lives, having seen what the world had made them — they were ready for another journey, to a different kingdom: strange, distant, and yet feeling like home.
If the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart, then Epiphany is the season of hope.
The Revd Mark Oakley is Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s cathedral and the author of The Splash of Words: Believing in poetry (Canterbury Press, £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.70)) .