Hieronymus Bosch, The Prado Epiphany

triptych                 Epiphany

  Triptych of the Adoration of the Magi
(left wing) The Donor with St Peter and St Joseph

(central panel) The Virgin and Child and the Three Magi

(right wing) The Donor with St Agnes
c. 1510

Oil on wood, 138 x 72 cm (central), 138 x 34 cm (each wings)
Museo del Prado, Madrid

The work draws a contrast between the Magi as the first Gentiles to acknowledge the divinity of Jesus and the Jews who rejected his divinity. The inner wings of this altarpiece are occupied by the kneeling figures of the donors, husband and wife, attended by their patron saints Peter and Agnes. The coats of arms behind them identify the couple as members of the Bronckhorst and Bosshuyse families. The central panel displays the adoration of the Christ Child by the three Kings or Magi. The child sits solemnly enthroned on his mother's lap and the Magi approach with all due gravity. The crimson mantle of the kneeling King contrast with the monumental figure of the Virgin. The gift which the oldest King has placed at the feet of the Virgin is a small sculptured image of the Sacrifice of Isaac, a prefiguration of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross. Other Old Testament episodes appear on the elaborate collar of the second King, representing the visit of the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, and on the Moorish King's silver orb, a griffin atop a scene depicting Abner offering homage to David.

The curious peasants gathered around the stable  peer and scramble up to the roof in order to get a better view of the exotic strangers. The Shepherds  display much more reverence than do Bosch's peasants, whose rude behavior contrasts  with the dignified Magi. An important element of the painting  is the almost naked man standing in the stable door.  He wears a strange crown, a gold bracelet encircles one arm, and a transparent cylinder covers a sore on his ankle. His face and those of his companions appear somewhat hostile. Because they stand within the dilapidated stable, a time honored symbol of the Synagogue, these grotesque figures have been identified as Herod and his spies, or the Antichrist and his minions. Also, he could be the pagan sorcerer Balaam, who prophesized the coming of the star of Bethlehem when he was instructed by God to announce: "I shall see Him but not now: I shall behold Him but not nigh; there shall come a star out of Jacob and a scepter shall rise out of Israel (Numbers 24:17)." Although none of identifications is certain, the association of the main figure with the powers of darkness is suggested by the demons pictured on the strip of cloth hanging between his legs. A row of similar forms can be seen on the large object which he holds in one hand, this might be the helmet of the second King. Moreover, other devils  decorate the robes of the Moorish King and his servant. These demonic elements could refer to the pagan aspects of the Magi.

The stable and its inhabitants seem to be the source of malevolent powers infusing the landscape in the background. Joseph sits hunched over a fire and the crumbling walls around him are the remains of King David's palace, near which the Nativity was supposed to have occurred.  Like the stable, it represents the Synagogue, the Old Law collapsing at the advent of the New. In the field beyond, peasants dance to the sound of bagpipes, a familiar symbol of the carnal life. On the right wing, wolves attack a man and a woman on a desolate road. Behind the stable in the center, the followers of two of the Magi rush towards each other like opposing armies; the host of the third King appears beyond the sand dunes. The gently rolling countryside contains, in addition, a tavern, a pointing figure on a tower, and a few other odd figures standing around. Even the distant grey-blue walls of Jerusalem appear vaguely sinister. 



It was originally in the chapel of St. Jan Cathedral, 's-Hertogenbosch and was later acquired by Felipe II, who sent it to El Escorial in 1574. From there, it entered the Prado Museum in 1839. The center panel measures 54x 28 inches.

(click on the above image for a large view of all three panels) )


Two shepherds, one with a bag pipe and the other with a tool and a knife in his hat, look down from the roof; others try to catch a glimpse from holes in the barn wall or by climbing trees. Note: a similar tool appears near a sheep in the panel with St. Agnes. The  appearance of the ox and ass in images of the Adoration of the Magi is here changed  by the absence of the oxen. Gregory the Great in his Moralia in Job (I, 16) glossed the Isaiah passage with the identification of the ox as a symbol of the Jews and the ass as a symbol of the gentiles. Also, if the figure in the doorway is Ballam, then the ass could be his.

Positioned prominently between the oldest magus and the figure of Christ is the gift of the second magus. The incense is placed on a plate that is identifiable as a paten, the Eucharistic plate used to hold the bread of the Eucharist. The magus thus looks through the Eucharistic paten to the infant Christ held on the lap of the Virgin. This reiterates the doctrine of transubstantion central to the story of the Mass of St. Gregory on the exterior. The image on the gift of the third king has been identified as Abner's homage to David in Hebron: 2 Samuel (Kings) 3:10. From the Golden Legend: "...these three gifts signified the royalty, the divinity, and the humanity of Christ: because gold is used for royal tribute and He was the highest King, incense for divine worship, since He was God, and myrrh for the burial of the dead, since He was a mortal man."


 The middle ground shows two of the kings' followers riding toward each other as though engaging in battle; a third group of  riders can be seen closer to the city, Jerusalem,  in the distance. Near the city and close to  the cavalry is a windmill, a symbol Bosch usually incorporates in his works.




The flanking panels portray praying patrons with their namesake saints: Peter, with the keys, and Agnes, with a lamb. The side panels' middle and foregrounds lack spatial continuity with the central panel, although they can be read as a panorama as the events of fore, middle, and backgrounds are concurrent throughout the panels. Peter and the male patron appear on the left panel, which corresponds to Christ's right side, the position of honor. Beyond them, Joseph dries linens by a fire.




In the middle ground of this panel figures in a field dance to a bagpipe.


The right panel has the female patron and St. Agnes. In the background, a woman flees on a road away from a wolf, while a man closer to the foreground cannot escape the jaws of another wolf. Notice the broken wheel on a fallen pole.  Also, John 10:11-14: I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd giveth his life for his sheep. But the hireling, and he that is not the shepherd, whose own the sheep are not. seeth the wolf coming, and leaveth the sheep, and flieth: and the wolf catcheth, and scattereth the sheep: And the hireling flieth, because he his a hireling: and he hath no care for the sheep.  I am the good shepherd; and I know mine, and mine know me.


                     The three panels coherently blend into one another; because the frame does not separate scene from scene or make time differences.




 When the hinged outer panels were closed a Mass of St. Gregory is seen on the outside, also with a donor portrait. The tall, narrow panels are painted in a greyish-brown monochrome, except for the two male donors who appear in natural color. They may represent father and son, but neither can be identified with the husband on the left inner wing.

                                       Detail of closed panels. 


Additional Information*

Prado   The Prado Museum, Madrid, Spain