In Francisco Goya’s ‘The Adoration of the Magi’, a Black King Takes On an Important Role

In Francisco Goya's 'The Adoration of the Magi', a Black King Takes On an Important Role
Francisco Goya, Adoration of the Magi. Oil on plaster, 1773-74.

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black Archive & Library at Harvard University’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

An early and quite precocious work by one of Spain’s greatest artists takes a new approach to a venerated moment in Christian art. The broadly expansive composition depicts the Adoration of the Magi, telling the story of the three wise men, or Magi, who traveled great distances to honor the child Jesus in Bethlehem. The moving scene is one of a large cycle, or sequence, of mural paintings relating the life of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

The cycle was commissioned in 1773 by the monks of the Carthusian monastery of Aula Dei, just outside Zaragoza, Spain. Painted along the upper wall surface of the church, the series begins with a scene of Mary’s parents above the entrance, continues with her birth and marriage, and ends with the presentation of Jesus at the temple. The Adoration of the Magi, seen here, occupies a prominent place in the axial crossing of the church.

Born in the nearby town of Fuendetodos in 1746, Francisco Goya was a native of the region of Aragon. After augmenting his formal training with study in Italy, he returned to Spain, where he received important commissions for religious institutions near his birthplace. His work there is thus a kind of homecoming as well as a nascent projection of his long artistic career.

It should be noted that the biblical passage describing the Adoration of the Magi is limited to the most basic details of the event. Only much later did these intrepid travelers receive the traditional names of Gaspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Even so, the inconsistent assignment of these names to the Magi has muddled the understanding of their individual characters. Their exemplification of the three ages of man, as well as their distinct geographical origins, also entailed a lengthy process of commentary and debate.

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