Commentary by Hovak Najarian
Adoration of the Kings, Mosaic, 1296, Jacopo Torriti, (13th Century)
During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries there was an extraordinary growth in the veneration of Mary and many churches honored her name. In France, cathedrals were named Notre Dame (Holy Virgin) and in Rome alone, twenty-five churches were named Santa Maria. The largest of these became known as Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major). This ancient church was expanded numerous times and during the late thirteenth century the entire choir area was rebuilt. Jacopo Torriti was commissioned to design the mosaic for its new apse. By this time, Mary had been exalted to the status of royalty and in art she was usually shown seated on a throne. The theme that Torriti chose for the apse mosaic was the coronation of the virgin and its centerpiece was a large medallion depicting Christ placing a crown on the head of Mary. Scenes from the life of Mary are shown below the medallion and among them is “Adoration of the Kings.”
In the Book of Matthew (Chapter 2) an account is given of wise men from the East who – being guided by a star – traveled to Bethlehem, and brought three gifts to the infant Jesus. It is believed these visitors were magi from Persia; men known to be scholars who studied science, mathematics, philosophy, and the stars. Matthew’s account does not indicate how many wise men journeyed to Bethlehem but because three gifts were brought, the assumption has been that there were three.
Torriti’s, “Adoration of the Kings,” depicts Mary with the infant Jesus seated on a throne. An inconspicuous star is to the left of the throne and its rays point directly to the head of Jesus. The three kings with their crowns and splendid robes are raising their gifts as Jesus reaches out like a curious child. The kings, kneeling one behind the other in similar positions, create a sense of visual progression toward the infant; variations are introduced through differences in their crowns, the color of their beards, and the color of their robes. In the large pictorial space above them is an angel. Its active shape and large spreading wings fill the space and balance visually the stable and compact shapes of the kings below. All aspects – gestures, gazes, leanings – of the figures in this mosaic lead a viewer to the infant Jesus. The kings look directly at the child as they kneel and present their gifts while the angel looks at Jesus, extends an arm, and gestures, “Behold!”
Artists before the Renaissance had difficulties when they tried to create a convincing likeness of a child. The face of Torriti’s infant Jesus has the facial features of his mother and a receding hairline. His proportions are like that of an adult’s body reduced in size.
A mosaic is an image created by cementing small pieces (called tesserae) of various hard colored materials – usually of uniform size – to a base such as a wall, floor or ceiling. Materials such as marble, glazed clay and glass have been used traditionally for tesserae and they continue to be used today.
Hovak Najarian © 2013