The Adoration of the Magi according to Giotto

The Adoration of the Magi
The Adoration of the Magi


The Adoration of the Magi, 1304-1306.
Capela Scrovegni, Pádua, Itália.

While the other monotheists and the Protestant Reformation excluded images of worship, the Catholic Church maintained its pictorial representation giving her a didactic use. This use of the image was always questioned throughout history by various currents within the Church. However, the argument of force didactic image always triumph. In fact, before a largely illiterate population the images become teaching tool for the church, which appealed to artists whose works illustrated and approached the life and works of saints, the everyday reality of the common man. Due to the use of great artists for the construction of Christian imagery, production iconography Church wins the aesthetical and artistic dimension going well beyond mere didacticism. The construction of the Western visual communication, as well as their aesthetical bases can have their archeology found in Renaissance movement, especially in its religious dimension.

Giotto is an artist of this stature. His image simplification, based on a clear and precise design, its light color, clean and bright make their images are a visual impact and a dimension of monumentality itself to express the educational content desired by the church. Vasari in his “Lives of the most important artists of the Italian Renaissance“, written in 1550, considers Giotto as the very origin of the movement, which will culminates in the generation of Vasari. This generation develops a sense of rupture with the passed culture immediately differentiating indeterminate temporal flow. This is a break with the Gothic and a resume, according to an accurate reading of a classical passed has been forgotten.

In the painting “The Adoration of the Magi Giotto,” whose execution took place among 1304 and 1306, the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, Italy, Giotto shows all the mastery of his monumental style, clear and perceptive impact. The scene reveals one Epiphany, i.e., a manifestation and miraculous phenomena, which expresses a special moment of revelation that illuminates a significant and makes the life of one or more characters. Thus, the observer of the scene becomes a witness to the fact, keeping the Christian faith and belief in the veracity of the narratives of biblical events.

Giotto’s painting we are analyzing is part of a set of images ordered and paid by Enrico Scrovegni, a rich merchant. Usury was condemned by the Church and a way to purge this sin was to make donations to the church as works of art and architecture, thus contributing to the glorification of God and evangelization of men. Enrico’s father, Rinaldo is Scrovegni character of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which is in the seventh circle of hell, where those responsible are being punished for the sin of usury. So it is obvious that Enrico wants to purge devoting part of his fortune to build beautiful works of art for the churches, purifying himself so much like his father.

The theme of the adoration of the Magi is linked to the main theme of the Nativity that had already been recovered by introducing yourself in the popular imagination thanks to the work of San Francisco and dissemination of cribs and nativity scenes.

In the Bible, the only reference to the Nativity and the Magi found in the Gospel of Matthew. It is precisely this gospel that Giotto provides the imagistic elements to compose the scene of the Adoration of the Magi, which are represented as rich and powerful men from other lands and religions, but who recognize the Child Jesus the Messiah. They then pay tribute and bring offerings to the Messiah who was prophesied by a star. According to Matthew, “fell down and worshiped him.” Giotto makes them even kiss the feet of Jesus. In this painting, we see a constant recurrence in images of Giotto: the presence of the rock, which appears in many paintings of the time. This is a reference to Psalm of David (18.2) which states: “The Lord is my rock.” The wooden cover, very stylized, is an icon that references the manger, Nativity place.

Beyond the iconography derived directly from the Gospel of Matthew there are small elements that are probably based on the book of Peter, which was taken from the Bible and belong with the so-called “New Testament Apocrypha“.

Evidently Giotto built his compositions under the supervision of doctors of the Church and the inclusion of elements of the apocryphal gospels cannot be understood as a form of defense. The reason Giotto use these visual elements, which are not described in Matthew, is mostly due to the presence of these elements already in the popular imagination than any alleged recovery apocryphal gospels. To the effect of “witness of truth” must happen is that the imaginary expectations of the people are fully satisfied, adding a visual impact Giotto whose creation is a great teacher. The main elements that are not in Matthew are the rock, who’s meaning has already been explained, the angel and the star or comet. Angel are mixed and star and both have the same meaning with significant different. This is the reference angel as a star. The guiding star is the angel who guides.

The Adoration of the Magi is a derivative of the Nativity theme, but has its iconography beauty, and a wealth of images created by great artists.

Regardless of faith or ideological dimension of education, we can certainly enjoy the aesthetical beauty of the painting of Giotto. His emphasis on drawing clear, clean and direct and monumentality in the treatment chart reveals an archeology of contemporary visual communications. There is great beauty in the subtle use of colors representing with great sensitivity immaculate holiness of characters in the scene. The draping of garments refers explicitly to classical sculptures of ancient Greece and the entire scene is bathed in a transcendent elegance without flaunting any excessive luxury. The beauty of this painting opens my heart to celebrate, Brazilian celebrate “folia dos reis” (Three Kings Day).

Prof. Dr. Eduardo C Braga

06/01/2013 – Folia de Reis


 BUENO, Cintia M. F. R. “Seguindo a estrela: Mateus e o Apócrifo de Pedro na Epyphania de Giotto em Pádua”. In: ANPUH – XXV SIMPÓSIO NACIONAL DE HISTÓRIA – Fortaleza, 2009.

 HEINZ-MOHR, Gerd. Dicionário dos Símbolos: Imagens e sinais da Arte Cristã. São Paulo: Paulus, 1994.

 PANOFSKY, Erwin. O significado nas artes visuais. Trad. Maria Clara F. Kneese e J. Guinsburg. São Paulo, Perspectiva, 1979. (coleção debates)

 PANOFSKY, Erwin, A Perspectiva como forma simbólica, Lisboa, Edições 70, 1993.

 VASARI, Giorgio, 1511-1574. Lives of the most eminent painters, sculptors & architects, by Giorgio Vasari: newly tr. by Gaston du C. de Vere. With five hundred illustraiions, (London, Macmillan and co., ld. & The Medici society, ld., 1912-15.)


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9 Replies to “The Adoration of the Magi according to Giotto”

  1. Art is an essential part of the story as well as an information tool on humans. Thanks for sharing this interesting article.

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  4. I am a retired art historian and a committed Christian. I sometimes teach adults in my church to use classic examples of Christian art to expand their understanding of Biblical texts. I particularly benefitted from the idea that the observer helps keep belief in the veracity of the narratives of Scripture. I am glad, this day before Epiphany, to keep watch with Giotto and others.

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