Leonardo’s “Adoration of the Magi” at the Uffizi Gallery

Revealing the artist’s secrets

Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, detail, 1481
Fig. 1: Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, detail, 1481, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Imagine for a moment that you had a chance to visit Florence in 1481. Because you are a friend of Giovanni di Amerigo de’ Benci, you stayed with his family at their magnificent palace in Santa Croce. One day, Giovanni brought you to one of the rooms where you saw a young man working on a painting. He was fully concentrated on his work and he hardly even noticed your presence. Giovanni presented you to the painter. His name was Leonardo and he came from a little Tuscan town called Vinci. He was working on a composition for the Augustinian monks from the Florentine monastery of San Donato a Scopeto. You were simply amazed, and you started to make thousands of questions about Leonardo’s technique, ideas, way of painting. He was very eager to answer all your queries and you ended up talking for hours…

What a dream! We would all loved to experience such an exceptional thing and even if it is impossible to go back to 1481, today, in 2018, during your visit to the Uffizi Gallery you can still, somehow, see Leonardo at work. It is enough to look at his unfinished Adoration of the Magi and imagine the painter sitting there and drawing, thinking, changing his mind continuously. Let me tell you the story of this unique work.

In 1481 the Augustinian monks from the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto commissioned a young painter, son of the monks’ notary, to paint an Adoration of the Magi for the main altar of their church. This painter happened to be Leonardo da Vinci, illegitimate son of Piero da Vinci – a Florentine notary. Leonardo’s father, who would not recognize his first child as his legitimate successor, facilitated his artistic career to guarantee him an occupation and a profession. This was probably through his father that Leonardo received the commission for the altarpiece[1].

The painter started to work on the panel, prepared several studies, transferred the drawing on the wood and started to work on shading when he received the call from the Duke of Milan, Ludovico il Moro, who accepted Leonardo’s services at his court. In the summer 1482 Leonardo left Florence for Milan and the composition for the Augustinian monks was left unfinished at Giovanni di Amerigo de’ Benci’s house in the Santa Croce area.

Fifteen years later, the monks would return to the idea of having an Adoration of the Magi on their main altar. This time they would contact Filippino Lippi, son of the painter Filippo Lippi, who would paint his Adoration in 1496. This time the monks’ will would be satisfied and the painting would be finished.  Unfortunately, Lippi’s work did not hang in the monastery for a long time.

San Donato a Scopeto had to be destroyed in 1529. The Florentines were getting ready for the siege and decided to clear the area around the city walls. The monastery was located just outside the southern gate of the city, the Porta Romana, and thus it was demolished. This is how Florence lost some of its precious monasteries and convents, like San Donato a Scopeto or San Gallo, located behind the northern gate, the Porta San Gallo.

Lippi’s painting is kept at the Uffizi Gallery today, just like Leonardo’s unfinished version, so during your visit to the Gallery you can compare both paintings and study the difference between the two artistic visions.

Even if Leonardo’s Adoration was left unfinished, the fame of the artist preserved the panel from destruction. We know that already in 1601 the piece belonged to the Medici family and from their collections it passed to the Uffizi Gallery. In 2017 the painting returned to the Gallery after the restoration and today we can once again admire its fascinating and intriguing form and we can imagine Leonardo sitting there, drawing and painting, continuously dissatisfied with his ideas.

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Looking at the Adoration of the Magi is like entering Leonardo’s workshop and spying his work. This painting reveals many precious information about the artist’s technique and working methods, which confirm Leonardo’s particularity in his approach to painting. First of all, what we immediately notice is that the author used the surface of the panel almost like his sketchbook. Even if the composition was prepared and elaborated through the numerous preparative drawings, once transferred on the panel, Leonardo continued to work on it changing many of the details.

If you look carefully at the painting and at the figure of Baby Jesus, you can see that initially Leonardo drew Jesus’ right leg laying relaxed on Mary’s knees. Not fully satisfied with this design, the painter changed his idea and added the gesture of Jesus stretching Mary’s scarf with his right feet (fig. 1). This little detail would reinforce the dynamics of the composition and make the figure of Baby Jesus more lively and cheerful.

Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, detail, 1481
Fig. 2: Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, detail, 1481, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

In the upper part of the painting, on the right, you can notice a little figure of an elephant (fig. 2), that at one stage was supposed to become part of the composition. Along the right edge of the painting, instead, you can see four horse heads, which are a clear sign of Leonardo’s continuous studies and changing ideas put directly on the panel.

Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, detail, 1481
Fig. 3: Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, detail, 1481, Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi not only allows the viewer to look into the artist’s working process, but it also puzzles him with an unusual iconography. Leonardo imagined a crowd of people gathered around the Virgin and in the background he painted a strange building under construction. Both elements are rather unusual for this subject.  

The interpretation of the painting’s meaning is not easy. Antonio Natali, the former director of the Uffizi Gallery, linked the meaning of the adoration with the ideas expressed by St. Augustin and with Isaiah prophecies[2]. According to Natali, the variety of people gathered around the Virgin and Baby Jesus reflects the universal character of Epiphany. The manifestation of Jesus’ birth was addressed to everybody: Jews, pagans and barbarians. The population of the entire world was supposed to be touched and moved by the arrival of the Saviour. This is why around the Virgin we see a crowd of people from different cultures, some of them wearing beards. This diversity reflects St. Augustin’s thought about the universality of the Epiphany.

Leonardo da Vinci, study for the Adoration of the Magi, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence
Fig. 4: Leonardo da Vinci, study for the Adoration of the Magi, Gabinetto Disegni e Stampe degli Uffizi, Florence.

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Another curious element of the composition is the building under construction in the background and the scenes of a battle around it. As Antonio Natali argues, they refer to Isaiah’s prophecies about the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem and about the peace generated by the birth of the Saviour (Is 60, 10, 13)[3]. It seems, that Leonardo was asked to give the visual form to a particularly complex theological message about the universal character of the manifestation of Jesus’ divine nature. The monks wanted to show that the Epiphany brought peace on the earth and raised from the ruins ancient temples and religions.

Leonardo’s powerful painting, however, will never be finished and even Filippino Lippi’s version of the Adoration will hang in the monastery only for thirty-three years. Even if the siege of Florence caused the destruction of the monastery of San Donato a Scopeto, Leonardo’s and Lippi’s paintings survived, and we can admire both of them in the Uffizi Gallery today.

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[1] A. Cecchi, L’Adorazione dei Magi di San Donato a Scopeto e le altre commissioni non soddisfatte da Leonardo, in: Il cosmo magico di Leonardo. L’Adorazione dei Magi restaurata, Firenze, 2017, pp. 28-29.

[2] A. Natali, La predizione d’Isaia. Una trama per l’Adorazione dei Magi di Leonardo, in: Il cosmo magico, op. cit., pp. 17-25.

[3] Ibidem, p. 24.