Multiple artists focus on three Magi

By Daniel Fulco, Ph.D., Agnita M. Stine Schreiber Curator

We hope that you enjoy this painting from our collection.

Unknown (Mexican, New Spain)
Adoration of the Magi, early to mid-18th century
Oil on canvas
42″h x 32″w
Collection of Washington County Museum of Fine Arts
Gift of Cinda Perry, in memory of Spence Perry, 2018.7.26
 
The subject represented in this work derives from the New Testament (Book of Matthew, 2:11), which describes when three Magi (kings or wise men), following a star, came from distant lands to adore the infant Christ and offer him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (a yellow, fragrant tree sap). These events are celebrated as the Feast of the Epiphany. While the Bible does not specify the identities of the Magi, these men are often recognized as Balthasar (here, an African), Caspar (west Asian), and Melchior (European, kneeling in the center) in the western Christian Church tradition.
 
The artist’s soft, gentle style accentuates the story’s intimacy and joyfulness. Note the inclusion of a nautilus shell cup held by Balthasar, an addition that underscores the exotic, precious nature of the gift (brought from afar). A droplet of liquid is visible on the left of the object, alluding to the myrrh (used for healing and perfume) and water, symbolic of Christ’s baptism and the miracle he later performed at the wedding in Cana, where he transformed water into wine. The large column represents Mary’s strength, steadfast faith, and her experience of a painless birth.  
 
Completed by an unknown Mexican painter, it is likely that this work was painted by an artist associated with José de Ibarra (1688˗1756) or Miguel Cabrera (1695˗1768, see below), two of the most significant painters of religious subjects in Mexico during the 1700s. The facial features of the figures, the color palette, and compositional format correspond to those of comparable paintings by Ibarra and Cabrera. The artist’s creation of tender, emotional interactions among Mary, Christ and the Magi indicate that he or she possessed a familiarity with comparable qualities found in the work of their Mexican contemporaries and Spanish Baroque predecessors, most notably Bartolomé Estaban Murillo (1617-82). Paintings such as this example were intended to aid worshipers in prayer and communal services, and sought to instill passion and devotion among Catholics in Spanish Colonial Mexico.

José de Ibarra (Mexican, 1688˗1756)
Adoration of the Magi, mid-18th century
Oil on canvas
Collection of Museo Nacional de Arte, Mexico City

Miguel Cabrera (Mexican, 1695˗1768)
The Adoration of the Magi, mid-18th century
Oil on canvas
Formerly Sotheby’s, New York, 2014