Returning home by another way

  • Written by:

Mark Oakley finds hope in the changed hearts of the season of Epiphany
Hirarchivum Press/Alamy
Crowded: The Adoration of the Kings (1515) by Jan Gossaert (also known as Mabuse)
WANDERING around the National Gallery looking for seasonal paintings that might prompt a sermon or two, I came across Jan Gossaert’s Adoration of the Kings. It is an extraordinary work, and one that, I remember, Alan Bennett singled out when he was invited to name four paintings that he would want schoolchildren to discover.

He liked it, he said, because there was such a great deal going on in it that it was hard to take it all in. When writing about it for the London Review of Books, he also noted that — as in many nativity scenes of the period — Joseph is depicted as taking rather a back seat, and looks old and grey. Bennett imagined a conversation between the Wise Men:

“Who’s the guy with the grey hair?’”
“That’s the husband.”
“Oh my God!”

THE Adoration of the Kings was painted by Gossaert in about 1510 for the Lady chapel in the Benedictine abbey of Geraardsbergen, near Brussels. Gossaert had visited Rome a couple of years earlier, and was influenced by classical Roman art and the Italian Renaissance; he fused his new enthusiasm uniquely into the traditions and techniques of Northern European art.

Today, he is particularly known for his technical brilliance and the arresting power of his skill. What strikes you as you enter the room in the gallery where the painting is hung is Gossaert’s dazzling use of colour. The blues, reds, golds, and pinks are beautifully balanced in the work, and the same colour is never repeated exactly. With a limited range of pigments, Gossaert achieves his incredibly subtle variations.

The flotilla of angels in the sky, lit by the starlight, make a rainbow of hope across the scene — except for the one who is hiding behind the wall near Joseph, almost invisible. If there is such a thing as an introvert angel, this is it. It is somehow reassuring to know that he has a place there, too.

AS IS often the case, the nativity scene is set in the midst of the ruins of a collapsed building, a world in need of repair; in the foreground we catch sight of flowers and green plants whose life forces its way through the broken pavement.

In the centre of the painting is Mary, with a very alert child on her lap. The baby is holding a gold coin, looking almost as if he is giving a communion wafer to a believer. We are prompted to the time, later in his life, when he is handed another coin, and tells people that they should give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s. We sense here very deeply that the kneeling man is indeed giving to God what belongs to him.

Money, in this scene, is just a child’s plaything, but close behind the child is a donkey, similar to the one that will later carry Jesus to his destiny. In the frieze on the wall you can just make out Abraham and his son Isaac, to press home this theme of future sacrifice. The new life here is being tuned to heaven’s humility rather than to what the poet Les Murray calls “the Kingdom of Flaunt”.

As I saw the donkey there munching some grass in the background, I was reminded of U. A. Fanthorpe’s poem “What the Donkey Saw”, in which the donkey reflects on the overcrowding, not in the inn but in the stable, “what with the shepherds, Magi, Mary, Joseph, the heavenly host”: it is, indeed, very crowded in Gossaert’s scene.

I counted 32 figures, including a shepherd holding a houlette (a sort of trowel on a stick, used for herding sheep), and the tired-looking man hanging out of a window, who might well be saying, “Don’t you know what time it is? Some of us are trying to get some sleep.”

OF COURSE, three people particularly stand out: the beguiling visitors that here are “kings” but were originally referred to as being magoi and, therefore, either Zoroastrian priests, or probably more like fortune-tellers — star-gazers — from Mesopotamia (what we now know as Iraq and Kuwait, with parts of Syria and Turkey).

Nowhere in Matthew’s Gospel does it actually say that there were three of these magoi, and an early tradition had it that they actually came in droves to the stable. But, as we know, the three gifts mentioned in the Gospel led to the notion of there being three donors; Gossaert identifies them as representing the three parts of the known world, and with names that had become established around the ninth century.