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Fra Giovanni & The Adoration of the Magi Part I

“The Adoration of the Magi,” is a complex work that weaves together a sacred story, an Italian city, and an influential family narrative. It is a story so big that it took two friars, and their workshops to tell. In 1492, after Lorenzo de Medici’s death, there was an accounting of everything he owned. In this ledger is referenced a tondo, that hung in a room referred to Lorenzo’s bed chamber. It was executed Fra Giovanni. It told the story of the magi, and was valued at 100 florin. Many critics think the tondo at the National Gallery of Art is that work.

Why Lorenzo Medici Loved The Magi

The story of the magi held a special place in the hearts of 15th century Florentines. It is a Biblical story, found in the book of Matthew. The Magi (they are also often referred to as kings from the east, or wise men) see a very bright star. They believe the star is a sign that heralds the birth of a great king. They become the first gentiles to see, and acknowledge the Christ child with their gifts of gold, myrrh, and frankincense. In the Christian calendar this event is celebrated on Epiphany, January 6th, which is the twelfth day after Christmas.

Parade to Adore the Magi
Benozzo Gozzoli | Procession of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in Florence (1459-60)

In early Renaissance Florence, they would hold a huge parade through the city streets to commemorate Epiphany. The earliest mention of this parade is 1390. It was stopped in 1494, when the Medici family was forced out of Florence.
Over the years, the males from the Medici family would even take part in the festivities from time to time. Unlike a modern audience, Florentines would recognize this parade when they viewed the multitudes in the “Adoration of the Magi.”

The Shape Has Meaning

The shape of the painting is round and called a Tondo. Tondos were usually created for the home. They often commemorated an important life event.

There is symbolic significance too. A circle was considered a symbol of perfection, or unity.

Tondos shaped painting
Madonna Adoring the Child with Five Angels by Sandro Botticelli, on view at the Baltimore Museum of Art

Creating a crowded tondo like this caused a new problem. You have to set the central story apart from the cacophony that surrounds it. Here the artists used a triangle. The holy family, and magi are placed inside that key space. You can
follow the triangle edges with your eyes. The base is easy to spot. It follows the line of ground and robes and the grass below it. The other two sides of the triangle are not as obvious, but you can follow the edges of legs, and backs, and

Use of space and color to create the story

Another trick used to create this story in a story, is color. The entire painting is flush with pastel hues. If you look at inside that triangle you will notice that the background is almost all brown, and earthy. This allows the six figures who are clothed in pastel hues to pop, and draws your eye to them.

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