The Three Kings in Upton’s art collection

Typtic painting in gold frame by Bosch showing the birth of Christ in stable

The arrival of the three kings is shown in this great work by Bosch. It is part of Lord Bearsted’s collection of Old Masters and shows how the birth of Christ was depicted in the 15th century. Come and see it for yourself, it’s on display in the Picture Gallery.

The Adoration of the Magi by Hieronymus Bosch

Hieronymus Bosch, living from c1450-1516, was an Early Netherlandish painter. Many of his works depict sin and human moral failings. His name derives from his birthplace, 's-Hertogenbosch, then a flourishing city, which is commonly called "Den Bosch".

Little is known of Bosch's life or training. He left no letters or diaries. What has been deduced is based on brief references in the municipal records of 's-Hertogenbosch and in the account books of the local order of the Brotherhood of Our Lady to which he was artistic adviser. He produced several triptychs. Among his most famous is The Garden of Earthly Delights. But nothing is known of his personality or his thoughts on the meaning of his art. His birth date is estimated at 1450 on the basis of a hand-drawn portrait (maybe a self-portrait) made shortly before his death. 

A medieval surrealist

Everything about Bosch's work is distinctive. His paintings are fantastic and extraordinary, in both their composition and imagination. Some experts regard him as a prototype 'Medieval Surrealist'. He used images of demons, half-human animals and machines to portray the evil of man. His works contain complex, highly original and dense use of symbolism and iconography, some of which was obscure even in his own time. He never signed his paintings: fewer than 25 works surviving today are attributed to him.

The curious Kings

The Adoration of the Magi would have been an altarpiece, closed most of the time and opened to display its enthralling colourful scene, only on religious holidays. The central panel of this triptych shows the three Magi worshipping the new-born Christ. The second king wears a chasuble, the collar of which is decorated with a scene showing the Queen of Sheba before Solomon (an Old Testament forerunner of the Adoration). Balthasar, the Moorish king, in white robes, carries an orb, also decorated with an Old Testament exemplar. It has been suggested that the figure in the doorway is an Antichrist, or, more likely, the leprosy-stricken King Herod. Look closely to spot the details of small creatures tucked into the stable loft and the horse-mounted group on the right who shield their eyes from the light of the guiding star, originally above the roof but since chopped off the top of what was once a domed panel.

When closed, the wings display a central roundel with Christ before Pilate after the Flagellation. The surrounding areas show a typically grisly scene with flying demons and a procession of fantastic figures in grisaille (grey monochrome). Use our small torch to take a close look at them.

The Upton painting isn't the only one

The Upton version of The Adoration of the Magi is an oil-on-oak panel triptych, on display in our Picture Gallery. There is also a variant of the central panel of this work at the National Trust's Petworth House in Sussex and of the entire triptych in The Prado, Madrid.