Book of Hours of Louis of Orleans

Book of Hours of Louis of Orleans f. 31r, Sixth: The adoration of the Magi


f. 31r, Sixth: The adoration of the Magi

This full-page miniature is one of the most badly damaged in the manuscript, particularly on the right and at the bottom where so much paint has been lost that just the bare parchment remains. The colour of the decorative border imitates cornelian with the addition of golden veins. The frame – one of those with the most fanciful, architectural elements – flanks the story with two imitation, green marble columns with gold filigree. The two Solomonic columns above are crowned by two sculptures of putti in combat and support an ogee arch with a cord motif that Jean Colombe had used previously. The finishing decoration has been partly trimmed away during different rebinding processes. As regards the miniature itself, the upper part shows the Virgin seated on a bed with a red canopy trimmed in gold with St Joseph behind it. The naked Child Jesus on her lap is older than would be expected, in line with the puer senex, concept, and seems to be taking the cup being held out to him by one of the wise men, represented as an old man without a crown kneeling before Him. Behind this wise man stands another, younger king wearing scarlet gowns and a crown, with a golden cup in his hand, waiting to adore Jesus. The third wise man, depicted as a black person between the other two, wears short, blue, green and gold garments and holds a golden recipient in his right hand. The scene is set in a ruined building similar to the one shown in the Nativity scene (f. 25r), and even features the two animals. In the background is a group of men – possibly the kings’ entourage – and soldiers, but only their spears can be seen. Finally, the star in the sky beams down golden rays upon the Virgin and Child.
In a similar manner to the illustration of the Annunciation to the shepherds, the bottom section shows a scene that complements the previous one except that it lacks any doctrinal and theological content. In this instance, the wise men’s pages mind the horses, most of whom are seen from the rear and are considerably foreshortened, creating a very successful impression of depth in a very reduced space which could be expected to be more flat.
The origins of the Adoration by the Magi date back to the art of the Roman Empire in representations of the processions of eastern barbarians, preceded by a winged victory, giving their tributes to the emperor. The evolution of this scene during the Middle Ages resulted in this subject being interpreted as a symbol of the divinity of Jesus until the 14th century when it underwent a transformation due to the influence of Franciscan mercy. The outcome was that less emphasis was laid upon the presentation of the gifts and more on the relationship between the Child and the Kings, as expressed by gestures of tenderness and persons looking at each other. In the Meditationes Vitae Christi mentioned earlier, the Adoration by the Magi is described as follows: “Those three kings arrived with many people and a noble entourage at the hut in which the Lord Jesus was born. Our Lady heard the commotion and took the Child beside her in her arms. They entered the little house and, kneeling, adored Jesus reverently. The tale continues with the Magi kissing Christ’s feet and His blessing all three. This aspect is not featured in the Book of Hours of Louis of Orléans. From the 9th century onwards, the Magi were depicted on their knees in western art, a motif borrowed from the ceremonies of courts, and it was not until the late Middle Ages that it was understood to convey mercy and adoration. The appearance of the three Magi is a combination of new ideas and tradition. Hence the division by ages – one elderly, one mature and one young king – found since the 12th century is maintained. This represented the phases of life. However from this time onwards they represent the universal church on the three known continents. Hence, one of them is occasionally represented as a Negro to emphasise the adoption of Christianity on the three continents known at that time (“gens ad Christum conveniens”), such as for example in a twelfth-century manuscript housed in Berlin, but more frequently from the 14th century onwards, particularly in German art, which provides the earliest example in the tympanum of St Theobald of Thann (c. 1335), and also Dutch art. From the 13th century onwards, the cups containing the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh took on the appearance of liturgical recipients or the embellished goblets used by royalty.

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