Why depict the Magi as three kings? This painting gives us an answer

'The Adoration of the Kings' by Paolo Veronese

Here, if you can bear it, are more of my musings about the National Gallery, as we approach the feast of Christmas. Room 9 is devoted to Venice and here we find another enormous scene of Adoration – the Adoration of the Kings by Paolo Veronese.

One can see almost immediately just why any ambitious artist would want to paint this subject. The Kings are splendidly clad, as are their attendants, and this gives Veronese the opportunity to show off his rendering of various types of fabric, among them silk, brocade and leather, as well as a wide range of skin tones – we have an African page, and one of the kings is Moorish in appearance – as well as various types of hair from the camel, the dogs, the lambs and the horses’ manes to the luxurious beard of one of the kneeling Magi. All of these things are rather hard to paint, and to paint so many of them in one picture enables the artist to advertise his skills. Something very similar is going on in the magnificent The Family of Darius before Alexander which hangs in the same room.

But is that all there is to it? Is this simply a display of virtuoso skill? Is there anything religious about this picture? It was painted to hang on a church wall, after all, so the Gallery’s blurb tells us. In the Alexander picture, the family of Darius kneel before the conqueror from Macedon, surprised to find kindness and mercy in the one who has defeated them. In the Adoration, the Kings are transfixed at the sight of the Child, their eyes focussed on His feet. The family of Darius feel apprehension before Alexander; but here there is no fear, only love.

Veronese knew as well as we do that the visitors from the east were Magi, wise men, and not kings, but he has chosen to depict them as kings, that is, rulers, rather than scholars, for a particular reason. He wants to show us worldly splendour inclined before the simplicity of the babe of Bethlehem. As a Venetian, Veronese knew all about magnificence and show, for Venice excelled at both, and was one of the great world powers at that time, though one soon to enter a long period of decline. The way the Kings worship the Lord is a sign to the viewer that before God all worldly power is as nothing. The painting asks us to reconsider our own glory and pride, and lay them down before the Child Jesus, He whose glory does not consist in worldly goods.

Indeed, all worldly things are destined to pass away, as the wife and daughters of Darius have found out, and as Alexander will one day find out too. In the Adoration, the hut in which the Holy Family live is built into some Roman ruins. The row of broken columns suggest a temple, and the arch in the background suggests one of the triumphal arches of ancient Rome. Where is the Roman Empire now? Where are the glories of her past conquests? What has happened to her religion and her gods? All have been replaced by the reign of Christ, this tiny child, who has overcome them not by violence, but by the power of truth and love.

It is ironical that today Christmas is celebrated as something of a Bacchanalia of materialism; yet the truth of the matter is that Christmas is the feast celebrating the way the immaterial conquers the material. Veronese’s Kings will go home knowing that their power, their riches and their magnificence are almost illusory, for they count for nothing compared to the glory revealed in the Son of God.