In 1459, Piero de’Medici commissioned Gozzoli to decorate the private chapel of the Palazzo Medici, Florence. Patron and artist, sharing a taste for pageantry, rich colours, and Burgundian tapestries, conspired to produce the most glittering fresco paintings of the century, recalling and perhaps rivalling, Gentile da Fabriano’s altarpiece of the Adoration of the Magi of 1423 (Florence, Uffizi). Gozzoli took the same subject but distributed the processions of the Three Kings over three of the walls of the chapel, making each procession converge on the central point beneath the star represented in the coffering of the ceiling and in front of the altar.

The frescoes were not merely a sumptuous decoration. They also made an unmistakeable statement about the emerging prestige of the Medici. Leading members of the Medici family (who were enthusiastic members of a religious confraternity dedicated to the Magi) have been identified in the cortege, notably the proud young Lorenzo de’Medici, and one of the Magi can plausibly be identified as John VIII Palaeologus, the Byzantine emperor, who had visited Florence as a guest of the family in 1439, during the ill-fated ecumenical council. As interesting as the presence of these celebrities is the fact that almost all the major figures in the painting are portraits of Medici contemporaries (though many cannot now be identified.

An upwardly mobile family of bankers was celebrating its various contracts, mercenary and diplomatic, and associating itself, at the same time, with a regal procession of Biblical status and prodigal splendour.

Mark Stevens