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The Adoration of the Magi
Maíno, Fray Juan Bautista
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Maíno, Fray Juan Bautista

Pastrana, Guadalajara, 1581 - Madrid, 1649

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The Adoration of the Magi

1612 - 1614. Oil on canvas.
Room 007A

On 14 February 1612 Juan Bautista Maíno signed the contract to execute the paintings for the monastery church of San Pedro Mártir in Toledo. Maíno agreed to a period of eight months to make the paintings, which had to portray the scenes and episodes specified by the prior of the monastery. Despite the agreement reached in the contract, the paintings were not completed until December 1614. In the meantime Maíno entered the monastery, becoming a member of the Dominican Order on 27 July 1613.

As a result, this altarpiece is the key reference point in Maíno’s oeuvre. Antonio Palomino based his judgement of the artist’s work on it, describing Maíno as one of the most eminent painters of his day, as can be seen in his works for the said house [San Pedro Mártir], particularly the high altar of that church with the four canvases of the Cuatro Pascuas [four feasts], in which there are excellent nudes and other things painted in majestic life-size. For his part, Ponz singled out the invention, knowledge of chiaroscuro, draughtsmanship and skill in the use of colour that Maíno’s paintings revealed, and he was the first to refer to the subjects depicted: The coming of the Holy Spirit, the Resurrection of Christ, his Birth and the Adoration of the Magi. Together, these are the most important episodes in the life of Christ, from his birth to his resurrection, and thus constitute the great iconic images of the Catholic world and the most important festivals in the ecclesiastical calendar, known together in Spanish as the Cuatro Pascuas.

The Adoration of the Magi is undoubtedly one of Maíno’s most important and highly praised works. It was designed to occupy the right-hand side of the altarpiece for the high altar of the church of San Pedro Mártir in Toledo and was located on the lower level of that ensemble. Thus, it was devised as a compositional pair and counterpoint to the Adoration of the Shepherds and, as in that work, it was conceived bearing in mind the fact that the viewer would see it from close up (as it was on the lower level), as well as the relationship of its compositional elements to the altarpiece as a whole. The restrained, earthy palette of the Adoration of the Shepherds here becomes a profusion of colours that immediately conveys the richness and exoticism of the Magi, representatives of the powers of three continents who prostrate themselves before the newborn Infant and offer gifts that bear witness to the special nature of Christ: Aurum regi, thus Deo, myrrha defuncto.

Maíno conceived his presentation of the episode through a composition that is notably simple with regard to spatial structure and the placement of the figures and other elements. However, the characters transmit enormous warmth and emotion, and they relate to each other in an effective manner by virtue of Maíno’s dazzling use of the brush, which Diego Angulo described as an authentic pleasure for the eye.

The scene takes place among the ruins of one of the most famous buildings in Rome, the Colosseum, an icon of the imperial era but here shown as overgrown by plants (an evergreen ivy), as it was generally depicted in medieval representations of this subject. To the right, Maíno locates the Holy Family. Mary holds the Christ Child in her lap, tenderly wrapping him in part of her own mantle while the fingers of her left hand gently press on his arm to help him remain upright as he blesses the Magi. The Virgin is seated on a solid stone block, a smaller version of which acts as a footrest. Her youthful face is generally similar to the idealised presentation seen in the Adoration of the Shepherds, but her features are more specific and her gaze more focused. This is also the case with Saint Joseph, who has a long, tangled beard and is involved in the action, pointing with hisright index finger towards the Christ Child. This gesture derives from Caravaggio and functions to create further directional lines in the composition. The movement is repeated by the young man located on the left, who seems to be part of the Magi’s retinue and who looks out of the compositional space while pointing with his index finger towards the newborn Infant. For David M. Kowal this figure was a pilgrim whose very specific facial features may correspond to those of Maíno himself. This seems quite likely, and the marginal placement of the character within the composition reinforces the idea. Maíno introduced other portraits in a similar manner in the Hermitage Adoration of the Shepherds in the form of three figures in contemporary dress who bring to life the biblical narrative].

The idea that this character is a self-portrait of Maíno seems more likely than that the artist would have depicted himself as Saint Dominic in the same altarpiece. Kowal also pointed to the Caravaggesque nature of this type of formula, notably similar to one of the figures in the Seven Acts of Mercy in the church of Pio Monte della Misericordia in Naples. Again, this seems a plausible suggestion; for the present author, Maíno used this figure to combine various aspects of the male group on the left of Caravaggio’s painting.

Saint Joseph and the pilgrim thus point with their fingers towards the Christ Child, who repeats the gesture by pointing with his left hand towards Caspar. Located in the foreground, very close to the viewer, the Magus is painted with a striking realism that culminates in his round, balding head. Dressed in a costly tunic of violet silk conforming to sixteenthcentury Italian fashion and a gold coloured cloak with foliate motifs in gold and silk brocade, he presents gold in the form of the gift that he places at the Christ Child’s feet, a costly lidded chalice that stands on the ground in the immediate foreground. The Magus kneels before the Infant and repeats the gesture of veneration (hand on breast) made by the older shepherd in the Adoration of the Magi in this altarpiece.

He is depicted as an old man with a partly bald head and greying hair, a model seen again in the Hermitage Adoration of the Shepherds, albeit transformed there into Saint Joseph. The head is drawn with great care and detail in the grey locks around the bald crown, the skin of the bald head, the lines on the forehead and the modulations created by the light from the Christ Child as it falls on Caspar’s face and beard. He has just kissed the Infant, as we can deduce from the position of the Child’s left foot, which bends forward towards him, and the expression of childish curiosity on the Infant’s face. This gesture forms a realist counterpart to the action of blessing, conveying the divine nature of the Infant Christ, a figure that corresponds to Maíno’s habitual typology.

Melchior is also presented kneeling, offering a gilt chalice that holds the incense, symbol of the divine nature of the newborn Infant. His face is depicted as meditative and gently smiling, also modelled by the light that envelops it. His slightly slanting eyes, short, sparse beard, large gold and white turban and ornate kaftan all indicate his Middle Eastern (specifically Turkish) origins. Standing behind him is Balthasar, a young black man depicted in the act of taking from the hands of his page a mother-of-pearl nautilus decorated in gold that contains the myrrh, the signum sepulturae that evokes the Infant Christ’s destiny, born to die and thus to redeem mankind. Balthasar wears striking silk and linen clothes and a small turban over a red cap ornamented with colourful feathers whose light, soft texture is deftly conveyed by Maíno, as is the subtle shadow that falls over the Magus’s turban and vigorous head, whose African features are perfectly depicted with all the tiny details and nuances of the skin. Balthasar’s head is aligned with those of the other two Magi, forming a line that concludes at the top of the canvas with the star that guided them to the Christ Child and his family. A powerful golden glow radiates from this eight-pointed star. In the upper part of the composition Maíno depicted the ruins of the Colosseum, a building that in addition to being a symbol of the paganism over which the Christian faith -personified here by the Infant Christ- arose, is also a reference to the time that the artist spent in that city.

The canvas has been widely praised as one of Maíno’s finest works and an excellent example of Caravaggesque painting of the most luminous and colourful type. An indication of the esteem in which it was held in the past is the fact that, along with the Recapture of Bahía, it was the only painting by the artist to be exhibited in the Prado after the Cuatro Pascuas arrived from the Museo de la Trinidad, and in fact the presence of those two works on public display has largely accounted for modern art historical opinions on Maíno’s work. The art historian Narciso Sentenach (1853-1925) underlined the interest in detail evident in both paintings, consequence of the artist’s direct observation of reality. However, Sentenach’s overall opinion was ultimately negative, as he considered the figures in this Adoration of the Magi to be painted with too much minute detail, describing them as frozen dummies and detecting the lack of an overall harmonious vision in the composition. Soon afterwards Mayer revived the idea of the influence of Caravaggio that had been discussed by his fellow German art historian, Carl Justi. Enriqueta Harris underscored the relationship with Caravaggio and pointed to the influence of Lotto and Savoldo on both painters. She also remarked on some clearly Caravaggesque elements, such as the depiction of the ivy and the boulder in the foreground. For Harris, the naturalistic treatment of these details in the work of both artists had the same significance: that of giving vitality and immediacy to the scene. This idea has recently been revived by Kowal, who draws attention to the selective realism used by Maíno and the restrained realism that gives an objective quality to the narration of the episode.

Together with this essential Caravaggism that is based on Maíno’s first-hand knowledge, other sources and references have been noted. For Longhi, the graceful flow of the figures and the decorative nature of the composition bring it close to the work of Orazio Gentileschi, a point also made by other writers such as Lafuente, Angulo, Pérez Sánchez and Spear. In this respect it is useful to make a comparison with Gentileschi’s Circumcision painted between 1605 and 1607 for the church of the Gesú in Ancona, a work that shares many of the features found in the present canvas, such as the type of composition with interlinked figures that create the spatial structure, their solid modelling, the bright lighting and the chromatic richness of the entire scene. Spear suggested a date for the canvas of after July 1613, based on the signature that refers to Maíno’s status as a Dominican monk, although as noted above, both its location and the fact that it is the only identification on the altarpiece suggests that it is the signature for the entire work.

Ruíz Gómez, L, Juan Bautista Maíno, 1581-1649, Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado, 2009, p.120-125, n. 14


Technical data

Inventory number
Maíno, Fray Juan Bautista
The Adoration of the Magi
1612 - 1614
Height: 315 cm; Width: 174.5 cm
Retablo de las Cuatro Pascuas, Iglesia de San Pedro Mártir, Toledo
Toledo, Convento de San Pedro Mártir, de dominicos, iglesia; Museo de la Trinidad.

Bibliography +

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Longhi, R., Gentileschi padre e figlia, L'Arte, XIX, 1916, pp. 245-314.

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Mayer, August L., Historia de la Pintura Española, Espasa Calpe, Madrid, 1928, pp. 372.

Harris, Enriqueta, Aportaciones para el estudio de Juan Bautista Maíno, Revista española de arte, IV, 8, 1935, pp. 333-339 [336].

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García Figar, A., Fray Juan Bautista Maíno, pintor español, Goya: Revista de Arte, 25, 1958, pp. 6-13 [6-7].

Angulo Íñiguez, D.; Pérez Sánchez, A. E., Historia de la pintura española: escuela madrileña del primer tercio del siglo XVII, Instituto Diego Velázquez, Madrid, 1969, pp. 309, n. 2.

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Prinz Von Hohenzollern, J.G., Von Greco Bis Goya. Vier Jahrhunderte Spanische Malerei, Haus Der Kunst, Munich, 1982, pp. 176.

Museo Nacional del Prado, Catálogo de las pinturas, Museo del Prado, Madrid, 1985, pp. 387-388.

Nicolson, Benedict, Caravaggism in Europe, Umberto Allemandi & C., Turin, 1990, pp. il. 472.

Gould, Cecil, International Dictionary of Art and Artists. Art, St.James Press, London-Chicago, 1990, pp. 429.

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Réau, L., Iconografía del Arte Cristiano, T. I, vol. 2, Barcelona, 1996.

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Other inventories +

Catálogo Museo de la Trinidad, 1865. Núm. 204.
ESCUELA TOLEDANA. [...] FRAY JUAN BAUTISTA MAYNO.[...] 204. La Adoracion de los Magos. / Lienzo. - Al. 3,15.- An. 1,75. - Fig. t. n. / Firmado, F. InO BAtista maino F. / A la derecha, sentada sobre un banco junto al arco de piedra que figura el portal de Belen, está la Vírgen sentada con el Niño sobre sus rodillas, en actitud de bendecir al más anciano de los Magos, quien está arrodillado en ademan de adorara al Niño y tiene a sus piés la copa de oro que viene a ofrecerle: el otro Mago tambien de rodillas, ofrece al Niño su copa. Detrás a la derecha se ve a S. José y a su lado en el centro al Rey negro acompañado de un esclavo del mismo color. Este cuadro y los núms. 196, 209 y 216 pertenecieron al retablo de S. Pedro Mártir de Toledo, de cuyo convento era fraile Mayno.

Inv. Museo de la Trinidad, Pintura. Núm. 204.
204. La adoracion de los reyes y el nacimº del hijo de dios fs de tamº nat.l y cuerpo entero en primer termino un rey arrodillado ofreciendo mira en el baso de oro. / Autor Maino (sin firmar) / alto 3,15; ancho 1,74. / Nº 17. E.P.

Catálogo Museo del Prado, 1872-1907. Núm. 2166f.

Inscriptions +

.E, ÍOn, BAtista maino ,F,
Inscribed. Front, Lower right area

Exhibitions +

06.06.2020 - 25.07.2021

Fray Juan Bautista Maíno
28.09.2016 - 29.01.2017

Juan Bautista Maíno (1581-1649)
20.10.2009 - 17.01.2010

El Greco to Velázquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III
Durham NC
22.08.2008 - 09.11.2008

El Greco to Velázquez: Art during the Reign of Philip III
13.04.2008 - 27.07.2008

Location +

Room 007A (On Display)


Displayed objects +



Update date: 10-12-2022 | Registry created on 28-04-2015

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