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: A 15th-Century German Adoration of the Three Kings


Minneapolis Institute of Arts



Institution Minneapolis Institute of Arts
A German marble relief of the Adoration of the Three Kings, dating from the mid-15th century, has been acquired by the Museum as a gift from The Morse Foundation. The subject matter is familiar and its presentation here uncomplicated. The Child is held upon His mother's lap while the Three Kings present their gifts (fig. 1). To Mary's right is Joseph holding a rosary and kneeling. Behind the Holy Family two angels with golden wings hold a cloth to protect the Mother and Child. Mary wears a crown of gold; her hair is gold and her long flowing robes are trimmed with gold. The combination of these features and her youthful appearance indicate that she is presented here in her role as Queen of Heaven. The first King kneels and offers his gift to the Christ Child. The second King stands next to the first and points towards heaven. The third King is dressed in a short tunic and bears a gift which appears to be a mounted horn. He is assisted by a dwarf or young boy who is shown removing his cap. The crowns, gifts, edges of the clothing, and other important features are painted gold. Though the present gold is not the original paint, all indications are that these same areas have been painted for a very long time. Perhaps the piece originally was completely painted, but examination of it today does not suggest that it was.The exact use of such a relief is difficult to determine. It may have been a single piece meant to be seen by itself, or, that which seems more likely, it may have been part of a larger grouping. Possibly it was part of a marble altar in which the main relief would have been the Nativity. In any case its simplicity and small size are deceptive in that they tend to allow on to miss some features of interest. Though the figures are small and squat, they are carefully done. For example, the Three Kings clearly represent the three ages of man. The first, or kneeling King, is old, bearded, and somewhat feeble. The second King is robust and middle-aged; his beard is short and fashionably trimmed, his pointing gesture is precise. The third King is youthful. He is beardless, and his stance and physique are athletic. Joseph is represented, as was characteristic in Germany in the mid-15th century, as old, plain, and somewhat confused.The group is dated circa 1450 in a Viennese sales catalogue of 1910. The original location of the relief is not known, though on the grounds of tradition and stylistic analysis it is thought to have come from the German province of Thüringen. This area of Germany, southwest of Berlin in the Eastern zone, was in the 15th century a part of the Electorate of Saxony. At that time Thüringen was a rich prize, and for that reason in a continuous state of turmoil. In the 16th century Luther and the Protestant Reformation were centered here. Out of such a background we are fortunate to have retrieved such a perfect and uncomplicated example of late medieval German sculpture.Referenced Work of Art
  1. Anonymous
    German, ca. 1450
    Adoration of the Three Kings
    Marble, 13 1/4 inches x 24 inches
    Gift of the Morse Foundation, 66.33
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Source: George McMay Reid, "A 15th-Century German Adoration of the Three Kings," <i>The Minneapolis Institute of Arts Bulletin</i> 55 (1966): 46-47.
Rights: ©MIA
Added to Site: March 10, 2009