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Adoration of the Magi

Leonardo da Vinci, Adoration of the Magi, 1481, oil on panel (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/leonardo-adoration-of-the-magi.html. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

SPEAKER 1: We're standing in front of an unfinished painting by Leonardo da Vinci. It's a big painting. And interestingly, it's almost a perfect square. SPEAKER 2: It's really unfinished. It's not just that it has parts that are unfinished, but it's really just the underpainting. SPEAKER 1: This is The Adoration of the Magi, a moment in the Christian story when Christ has been born and three kings from the east, guided by the star of Bethlehem, come to Mary and offer Christ three gifts, frankincense, myrrh, and gold. What's revealed to us here is Leonardo's working method-- not only his brilliant drawing, but the way in which he constructs figures. Remember that Leonardo is first and foremost not a painter. He's really a scientist. He's really an engineer. He's somebody who looks and understands nature. SPEAKER 2: We have a sense of Leonardo's deep understanding of human anatomy. Even when he's painting clothed figures, he's really understanding the skeletal structure. He's understanding the musculature of the body. SPEAKER 1: If you look at the group of figures to the right, about mid-level, you see one figure that almost looks like it's a skull. And it's as if Leonardo is literally constructing the bones before he'll put flesh on them, before he'll put clothes on them, before he'll add color. That's a group of figures that's often referred to as the philosophers. But maybe we should discuss the central group first. SPEAKER 2: So we have Mary and the Christ child front and center, forming a pyramid shape together with the Magi in front. And that's a shape that we see very often in paintings of the High Renaissance that provide a stable form. And you see that right here in the foreground with Mary and Christ. SPEAKER 1: That's especially important in this painting, which is so chaotic, where there's so much going on. On the upper right, for instance, there's actually a battle. You have two horses rearing up. On the upper left, you have the fragments of what look like some sort of classical architecture. You can see these wonderful steps in perfect linear perspective. Leonardo actually did some brilliant drawings in preparation for this painting. But let's look a little more closely at what you just said, and see if we can define those lines a little more exactly. If you start with the Virgin Mary and you look at her face, she's glancing across the top of her son's head, down his arm. He picks up, actually, her glance and brings our eye down until it's met by one of the Magi who's offering a gift. We can actually run that line down past his toes to the corner of the painting. Or we can actually pick up from Mary again and go the other way. If we go down the bridge of her nose, across her shoulder, picked up by the kneeling figure in the foreground at the left. What's interesting, as you said, this is not simply a triangle. But this is a pyramid that actually comes forward as it moves down. SPEAKER 2: --and exists in space. I'm struck by the way that Leonardo is paying attention to all of these human reactions to what's going on. And we've got lots of faces half hidden in the darkness and a lot of gestures. And it really reminds me, in a way, of Leonardo's Last Supper, where you have Christ in the middle forming a kind of pyramid shape with his outstretched arms. And all the chaos, and the reactions of the apostles around him, but this real sense of stability in the center. SPEAKER 1: That's such a characteristic of the High Renaissance-- this notion of balance, of a kind of perfection, of a sense of the eternal. But then, of course, how do we as humans, react? There's another element here, which is important and very characteristic of Leonardo. And even though this is just the underpainting, we can make it out. And that's this technique of sfumato, which in Italian is smoke. And it tends to create a kind of visual glue that creates a kind of harmony between forms within the paint, brings things together, and keeps paintings from having that sense of the isolated, so much a characteristic of the early Renaissance. SPEAKER 2: Right, so instead of figures being defined by lines, the figures are enveloped in atmospheric [? haziness ?] or softness, that kind of smokiness. And they almost seem to emerge out of the darkness into light and fade back into the darkness again. And so Leonardo's unifying the figures in yet another way. Not only in the pyramid composition and through their glances and gestures, but also into that smoky atmosphere. SPEAKER 1: We see this beautiful chiaroscuro, this beautiful smoke, this beautiful line, this beautiful composition, this complex sense of emotion. I'd love to know what this painting would have looked like had it been finished. SPEAKER 2: Me too.