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Object of the Month: January 2022

Narratives from the Early Life of Christ

Wool tapestry

Franco-Flemish, c. 1480

In Western church tradition, celebrating the twelve days of Christmas begins December 25 and culminates on January 6 with the Feast of Epiphany on Twelfth Night. According to The Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine (Archbishop of Genoa in 1275), this day commemorates four special events in the life of Christ: the adoration of the Magi, and later the baptism of Christ by John the Baptist, the miracle at Cana of the water turned into wine, and the miracle of feeding the five thousand with five loaves and two fish.

Scripture is unclear about the dates of these four events; however, chapter two of Matthew’s Gospel recounts that the wise men from the East came not thirteen days after Christ’s birth, but some two years. The Magi followed the star to Roman-occupied Jerusalem, where they visited King Herod hoping to learn of the promised Messiah’s birth. Unaware and troubled by the news, Herod assembled the chief priests and scribes to discover Christ’s birthplace, which was cited by the prophet Micah as Bethlehem in the land of Judah. Herod directed the noble travelers and requested they return to let him know where the young king was so that he too could worship.

The Magi found and worshipped the Christ child and offered Him three generous gifts, but they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod and departed a different way. Joseph too was advised by an angel to flee to Egypt to protect Jesus from Herod’s murderous jealousy—his massacre of innocent male children two years and younger.

Possibly handcrafted by a guild weaver in Tournai, France in 1480, M&G’s tapestry is roughly 4.5 feet high by 11 feet long. It tells a visual narrative of three scenes following the Magi’s remarkable visit: Herod ordering the murder of the children, the massacre of the innocents, and the family’s flight to Egypt.

Tapestries have a long history dating back to Egyptian and Roman times. However, from the Middle Ages up to the French Revolution, weaving flourished in France and Flanders as an outgrowth of interest from both the church and wealthy nobility. Tapestries were once functional, beautiful, and personal—full of purpose and reflecting the beliefs, skill, economics, and status of the times.

In the 15th century, tapestries often focused on heroes, particularly the Nine Heroes of pagan history (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), Jewish history (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus), and Christian history (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey de Bouillon). However, in this age of chivalry there was a parallel focus on nine heroines including the “greatest lady of them all,” Christ’s mother Mary. M&G’s Narratives from the Early Life of Christ is one of a series of six tapestries depicting the life of the virgin. In 1499 Leon Conseil, who was Chancellor of the Cathedral of Bayeux, cannon of Arry, and secretary of the bishops of Bayeux (Louis de Canossa and vicar general of Cardinal de Prie) gave the tapestry series and a pension for their care to the Cathedral of Bayeux—a church dedicated to Mary and one of France’s greatest and most notable cathedrals.

Phyllis Ackerman in Tapestry, the Mirror of Civilization explains the import and placement of such a gift, “The feudal devotion to a patron was equally practiced by the towns, for each had its patron saint to whom the Cathedral or finest church was usually dedicated, and just as a knight would trace his descent to his hero, so a city often attributed, if not its foundation, at least important moments in its early history to its saint. The lives of these saints were rendered into tapestry to decorate the church, usually on long, horizontal bands to hang around the choir.”

According to the 1901 Normandy Annals, M&G’s tapestry survived the French Revolution and still remained with the Cathedral (hanging in the library) until the city of Bayeux determined to deaccess it. It then passed through multiple collectors including John Pierpont Morgan, Georges Hoentschel, Clarence H. Mackay, and French & Co. before joining M&G’s collection in 1960.


Erin R. Jones, Executive Director


Published 2022

Scenes from the Life of Christ

Scenes from the Life of Christ

Russian Icon

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Jan Boeckhorst: Adoration of the Magi

Flemish painter Jan Boeckhorst studied with the famous Peter Paul Rubens and was considered one of his most successful students.

Jan Swart van Groningen: Nativity Triptych

In this triptych the artist beautifully pictures several of the most familiar Christmas story events.

Object of the Month: December 2019

Triptych: Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, Flight into Egypt

Oil on panel

Jan Swart van Groningen

Flemish, c 1500-1560

As his name states, Jan Swart came from the town of Groningen in the Netherlands. No documents tell of his training, but this painting depicts his fondness for showing people in unusual headgear. It also reveals his other work as a book illustrator. Here Swart pictures the central truth of Christ’s coming into the world, placed within the context of His early life. 

M&G’s Triptych (three panels) illustrates three events in Christ’s early life: the Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, and the Flight into Egypt. The birth of Christ signified the coming of a new covenant—a covenant that forever removed the necessary demand of the Old Testament Law requiring atonement for sin before the joy of reunification and fellowship with God. 

Swart unifies the three stories of the triptych through a key motif: broken architectural elements. The left panel (clearly the stable with a curious cow in the background) has the Christ-child lying on a manger of ornate stone, possibly the base of a larger pillar. But the broken pillar at the base of the marble manger (right foreground) catches the viewer’s attention because its decoration is too fine to be part of a stable and because it matches all the other pillars, especially the broken one in the foreground of the Adoration. In the Flight, the Madonna and Child are resting on a pillar’s base by the side of the road. In each panel then, Swart uses the broken columns to point to Christ’s reason for coming to earth. 

However, Swart develops his illustration of the Scriptures even more, specifically within the large, middle panel. The Adoration is central to an understanding of that New Covenant that Christ came to establish. To appreciate his storytelling, one must carefully consider the motif of the number 3.  

Three in Composition

Swart adorns the frame of the middle panel with a trefoil centered over the Madonna and Child. This iconography tells the viewer that the scenes are the story of the One God in Three Persons, the Trinity of which Christ is the second Person. Swart then emphasizes this truth through more tripling in the work. There are three openings in the room, which is clearly not a stable. In doing so he follows the same Scriptural distinction that the Magi came to “the house where the young child was.” Interestingly, each opening emphasizes a key character in the story: 

  • The left doorway holds the third magus as well as some other apparently well-to-do men, based on their clothing. 
  • The middle opening, framing the Virgin’s head, shows some soldiers in the background. Their presence alludes to Herod’s men, who were tasked with murdering the male infants in Bethlehem to prevent Christ from becoming king—the reason the family fled to Egypt.
  • The right opening frames a large building in the distance with townspeople going about their business, unaware or uncaring about the visit of such prestigious visitors to their village and to the Savior of the world. The full, frontal view of the first magus in his ostentatious dress already makes him a focal point, but the opening behind him seems to frame him as if he were posing for a portrait. 

Three Gifts

Swart does not include Joseph in this panel, though Christ’s earthly father is often part of this family scene. The reason is that the focus is on the heavenly family of the Christ. The three gifts of the magi emphasize a different family than that of Joseph’s. 

  • Gold is a gift for a king and points to Christ’s position as the King of heaven who will be rejected and killed by His lawful subjects. 
  • Frankincense, a gift for deity, represents the fact that Christ is the God of heaven who will not only be the priest who offers the sacrifice for sin but will also be the sacrifice itself. 
  • Myrrh is a burial oil symbolizing the death that will be necessary to establish the New Covenant of grace. It also emphasizes the unbelievable story of the Christ: The King of heaven and the Creator of the world will die for those who owe Him everything and will allow them the exercise of their free wills to reject or accept Him. 

Christ’s lineage through Joseph is that of the kings of Israel, perhaps another reason that he is not present: Christ’s royal claim to these kingly gifts relies on His eternal lineage, not that of His earthly father’s. 

Three Magi 

The three holders of the gifts are also interesting to note. Those held by the two Magi on the side are urn shape, commensurate with their gifts of oil. Logically then, the wide-mouthed lidded bowl offered by the central magus is the gold: the kneeling pose and the type of gift indicate the submissiveness of a subject to a king. Christ’s pose and gesture indicate His position as both king and priest in extending a blessing to His subjects.

Three Columns

The three ornate pillars within the middle panel are interesting as they are in differing conditions. The pillar in the foreground matches the one in the stable. But the other two frame the Christ and His mother. Perhaps Swart is showing the progressive nature of the New Covenant’s institution. One column is broken, another is empty, and the third fulfills its purpose. Christ must be born, die, and resurrect in order to complete the New Covenant. Swart again uses the number three to tell the story of Christ, even as an infant, has set in motion the redemption of the world. 

Dr. Karen Rowe, M&G Board Member


Published in 2019

Frans Francken, the Younger

The Adoration of the Magi
Frans Francken, the Younger

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Object of the Month: December 2017

The Adoration of the Magi

Oil on canvas, Initialed and dated, lower right: JB 1652

Jan Boeckhorst, called Lange Jan

Flemish, c. 1604–1668

Click on the link for additional reference information.

Among the Museum & Gallery’s collection, there are both famous and unknown artists.  But what about those who fall right in the middle?  What about the artists who have active careers and equal skill to the “greats,” but never achieve the fame of their contemporaries?  One of these artists is the Flemish master, Jan Boeckhorst.

Jan Boeckhorst, nicknamed Lange Jan (“Tall John”) was born in Münster, Germany in 1604.  At seventeen, he became a canon in the Jesuit church, but at the advanced age of twenty-two (long past the standard age for training) decided to become a painter.

In the 1620s, he moved to the coastal city of Antwerp—home to some of the greatest artists of his time.  Some historians claim he studied with Jacob Jordaens while others say it was Peter Paul Rubens.  More than likely, Boeckhorst studied with Jordaens because Rubens was in Spain and England in the late 1620s. Around 1634, Boeckhorst achieved the title of Master in Antwerp’s Guild of St. Luke and worked alongside the other Flemish masters including Rubens and Anthony van Dyck.  Boeckhorst visited Italy twice to study the sixteenth-century Venetian masters such as Titian and Tintoretto and returned to Antwerp by 1640.

Throughout his later life, he painted a variety of subject matter including religious and mythological for church altarpieces and private collectors.  His artistic work ranged from paintings, designing tapestries, and illustrating for religious books.  He also contributed to the founding of the Antwerp Academy.  After a full life, he died on April 21, 1668.

Despite his active career, much of Boeckhorst’s work is unknown, unsigned or wrongly attributed, so it has been difficult to compile a comprehensive list of his art.  One of the reasons his work might be misattributed is his close work relationship with Rubens. There are many evidences of their collaboration based on the standard studio practice of the time. Boeckhorst would help touch up paintings under Rubens’ instructions and even assisted the master in large commissions. After Rubens’ death in 1640, Boeckhorst finished or even restored Rubens’ remaining works. An example of their collaboration is King David Playing the Harp at the Städel Museum.

In M&G’s collection, there are three paintings by Boeckhorst; of these The Adoration of the Magi is considered his greatest work in America.  In the lower right corner, his initials and date are painted on a rock face: JB 1652.

Boeckhorst displays a heightened attention to texture with the wafting incense, richness of the garments, and different animals.  Because of his saturated colors, graceful composition and dramatic movement, scholars consider this painting to be a masterpiece of the High Baroque style.

KC Christmas, M&G graduate assistant



Published in 2017