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Wednesday, January 21, 2015

15 Minutes in the National Gallery of Art: Adoration of the Magi

by Shawn Tucker:

Series Note: The best way to experience Washington D.C.'s National Gallery of Art is in short intervals. The thing is like the Costco of art museums! Too often when people go they stay too long and look at too much, and it all becomes a big, beautiful blur. So this will be an ongoing series of posts that use a room or even just a painting from that museum and connect it with a song or poem to create what I hope is a productive and satisfying 15 minutes.

We're moving through the halls of the National Gallery of Art, and now we are deep in the Renaissance. Look at this painting—this is the sort of painting that we have museums for. This is Botticelli's Adoration of the Magi. The magi are the wise men. At the center is the Blessed Virgin Mary wearing her traditional red and blue and holding the Christ child wearing.

Botticelli is clearly not shooting for historical accuracy. Mary does not look like a poor Jewish woman, and the deep background looks like Tuscany. There is no manger, and the setting actually looks like the ruins of some building. Botticelli painted this work in Rome. The buildings are Roman ruins with a large wooden framework on top. This is an important and complex symbol. Catholics believe that God built Christianity on the foundation of the classical world. That world had passed away, but God's kingdom emerged from it. The humble wood of Christ's cross becomes the framework of a new roof that we see on top. That framework would eventually become the cathedral roof of God's kingdom on earth.

Botticelli wants to make Christ's advent, mission, and relation to the present as real and vivid as possible. Notice the even, delightful deployment of strong colors throughout the work. Notice the central focus and casual symmetry of the composition. Of course we could also see more going on here. Notice the faces of the wise men. Do you see how Mary’s face is fairly generic, as it is just an idealized woman's face? Do you see how many of the wise men look like real people? This is because those are not generic faces; they are the faces of the people who paid for the work. The magi were very popular in Florence at the time. There was a confraternity that celebrated them with a parade every five years. The fact that these are faces or portraits also explains why there are so many wise men and such a large retinue.

When you go to the National Gallery of Art or any other museum with Italian Renaissance art (or Italy!), you will notice lots of paintings of the worshiping wise men. And by lots I mean lots and lots and lots. You will also notice far fewer worshiping shepherds. Oh, and I cannot think of one painting of the Rich Man and Lazarus. That makes sense, because paintings were expensive, rich people paid artists to make them, and rich people wanted paintings that showed God's approval of rich people like themselves. Yes, this work is a show of humble devotion, but it also shows God's approval of the wealthy, powerful people featured here.

So let's listen to two songs with this painting. The first one emphasizes the devotional nature of this work. It should be familiar. Look and listen and see how these go together.

And then there is this song.

This may not be familiar; rarely is 90's Ska music compared with Italian Renaissance art. To what degree might the song describe Botticelli? Was he just a sell out for the rich? Let these two songs rattle around in your head next time you see one of those Italian adoration of the magi pictures.

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Shawn Tucker grew up with amazing parents and five younger, wonderful siblings. He served as a missionary in Chile during the Plebiscite and the first post-dictatorship election. After his mission, he attended BYU, where he married ... you guessed it ... his wife. They both graduated, with Shawn earning a BA in Humanities. Fearing that his BA in Humanities, which is essentially a degree in Jeopardy, would not be sufficient, Shawn completed graduate work in the same ... stuff ... at Florida State University. He currently teaches at Elon University in North Carolina. He and ... you guessed it ... his wife have four great children. Twitter: @MoTabEnquirer. Website:

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