The Adoration of the Magi by Unknown Neapolitan artist, follower of Giotto

Unknown Neapolitan artist, follower of Giotto

The Adoration of the Magi, c.1340–43, Tempera on wood, gold ground, 66.4 x 46.7 cm, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Robert Lehman Collection, 1975, 1975.1.9,

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African Ambassadors

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Who are the three Black figures in this Adoration of the Kings, painted in the 1340s?

The Black men must hold a special significance for this anonymous artist who worked in Naples. They are the only non-Western figures in the painting or in its two known companion pieces depicting the Annunciation and Nativity (now in the Musée Granet, Aix-en-Provence). Those panels once bore the symbols of the Anjou and Aragon families, probably indicating that the altarpiece was commissioned by or for the family of Robert of Anjou, King of Naples.

Royal riches abound in the Adoration, as seen in the elaborate palace and garments of Christ, the king of kings. Extremely ornate clothing, with an abundance of gold, also adorns the eldest king kneeling in the centre, his two younger companions on the left, and the angels on the right.

Isaiah 60:5 was a key source for the widespread Christian belief that the Magi mentioned by Matthew 2 were kings who came from afar.

The artist evokes the ‘wealth of the nations’ brought as tribute from these visiting ‘kings’. The prophet then referred to camels coming from Midian, Ephah, and Sheba. Perhaps this passage inspired an artist who had never seen camels to create the three unusual-looking animals visible behind the standing kings.

The absence of halos indicates that these individuals, like the comparable ones in the Nativity, are not holy figures. Neither kings nor attendants, the Black men probably reflect the group of Christian Africans who in the early 1300s travelled to Avignon, and then Rome, to pay homage to the Pope (Kaplan 1985: 12). An account written before 1330 described this remarkable event and identified the visitors as ambassadors from the ‘emperor of the Christian Ethiopians’ (Bausi and Chiesa 2019: 28). Many Europeans believed the ruler had descended from one of the three Kings. The ‘ambassadors’, most probably pilgrims, provided living proof of Christian communities beyond Europe.

Perhaps the artist even saw the Africans in person, given the unusually accurate representation of their physiognomy and clothing. He then transformed an ephemeral event into a timeless image to indicate the global reach of Christianity.



Bausi, Alessandro and Paolo Chiesa. 2019. ‘The Ystoria Ethiopie in the Cronica Universalis of Galvaneus de La Flamma (d. c.1345)’, Aethiopica 22: 1–51

Kaplan, Paul H. D. 1985. The Rise of the Black Magus in Western Art (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press)

Powell, Mark Allan. 2000. ‘The Magi as Kings: An Adventure in Reader-Response Criticism’, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 62: 459–80

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