Gozzoli: The Journey of the Magi

Gozzoli had painted the Magi before – and for the same family. Cosimo de Medici had commissioned an Adoration of the Magi for his Convent of San Marco, and Gozzoli rendered it in the chaste style of Fra Angelico, who was responsible for most of the San Marco frescoes. But here the style is sumptuous and the purpose is not meditative but ostentatious.

The small jewel box of a chapel is filled with splendid figures bedecked with every conceivable Renaissance consumer durable. The rich are bringing to the Christ child the fruits of their labours – or rather the fruits of their usury.

The journey (in which various members of the Medici household are portrayed) paradoxically announces their arrival: among the figures is the Byzantine Emperor himself who was a guest of the Medici during the negotiations of the Council of Florence. A humble banking family is here celebrating its elevation to the pinnacles of earthly greatness.

But the picture is, for all its boastful extravagance, still a gesture of piety, still a devout offering. The later splendours of the Medici – the great frescoes of Vasari in the Palazzo Vecchio, for example – are a secular celebration of princely dominion. Here religion still overwhelms pride, and the great are humbled before the Godhead. It is a splendid exhibition of wealth, power and influence; but it is still an offering to the glory of something other than self.

Mark Stevens