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Adoration of the Magi

Abstract: Discussion of the structural layout of Da Vinci's "Adoration of the Magi". Prior works note the significance of the palm tree and divide the painting's stage into two parts representing old and new. This document identifies four distinct areas and notes the visual and spatial techniques used to tell a more textured story. In this interpretation the Madonna figure is merely the visual hub, the palm tree becomes the real focus of the painting and the hub around which it turns. If this has been done before I'd rather link to a document written by someone who knows what they're talking about. If not then here ya go. Note on reading: Yes, it starts unfocused but does find the point pretty quick.

From: Eli Robillard
To: Jason
Subject: Re: 'scuse me while I pick your brain
Date sent: Tue, 19 Jun 2001 15:16:35 -0400

On 19 Jun 2001, at 5:41, Jason wrote:
> I don't know whether you're familiar with the attached painting (or is it an
> etching?), but I'm still stuck on the tree thing and found this really
> engaging; what do you think da Vinci was trying to say here?

First impression is that the large tree is the tree of life. Visually, it's at the base of the staircase, whatever the staircase is about. First thought about the staircase had more to do with Led Zepplin than canon. It's tough to tell whether the structure is broken or just unclear. The palm tree looks out of place and visually / spatially it's directly above / behind Mary. More likely it's the real tree. Then I don't know what the large one is about. A possibility that doesn't seem right is that the palm would be Mary and the foreground tree would stand for Jesus. If the staircase is anything, the palm is really the tree at its base. I wish I knew what's between the two trees, it looks like a horse but I can't tell. No idea about the two trees on top of the structure, above the arch, or even if they're both trees though one is and it would make a pair.

I tried to track down something about this painting but there's not a whole lot. This is the best I can find:

Okay, so this is unfininished, done in ochre. Leonardo is the guy in the bottom right. In the back right they're apparently fighting some sort of beast. There's a guy on the brink of death somewhere (I'm not sure who it refers to, maybe the guy just to the right of the large tree). And the most useful part: the tree of life is understood as the demarcation between the old, pagan ways and the new.

The perspective sketch Da Vinci did in planning is great. I think it holds a few answers. There's a copy here:

Now I have an idea on the whole damn thing. The tree isn't (just) a demarcation between old and new. Like any other religion the tree is a hub, not a line. Da Vinci thought spatially, not in top / bottom. So there are four quadrants -- Back-right, Back-left, Fore-left, Fore- right. And they flow in that order.

Back-right is "where it started" or confusion, paganism. Back-left is an ascent out of that with a man-made structure. As you get further to the left, around the circle, the structure collapses to ruins. The arch isn't on the perspective drawing, it may be a later thought. But the only path from the back to the front of the image is through that arch. Looks like a horse coming through, the way it's being greeted it may be a procession, I can't tell. The arch/channel may suggest re- birth but that's a stretch. At the least we can be sure it's a path, and traffic moves in the direction of the circle.

Now I see who the Magi are -- they're the three guys arranged in a triangle below Mary, one to our right, two to the left. The one on the right has presented his gift, I still see one between the others, so they move from left to right too.

The big tree looks like it grows out of the rock, so if it represents the Child, that would be consistent with the book. In the perspective sketch there was grass around it, but not here. Notice also what happens when you draw straight lines from its base -- you can make a triangle which encompasses Mary and the Magi, but misses the poor bastards with the bleak faces to the right. My guess is that line is the frontier and the only guy beyond it in luck is the one looking to the tree for salvation. The one whose head is on the line, looking at the Child would do well to follow his buddy's lead, but by his gesture he's still questioning. Da Vinci puts himself right on the damn line. He was 29 and about to break away from his master and set his own course. He knew what he was capable of and had the ego to put himself along that line. Nice move. Makes me wonder if the guy in the Fore-left corner was his master.

Okay, so the Tree of Life / world tree is the palm. The foreground tree represents the Saviour. The picture is arranged as a procession or transformation with the Tree of Life as its hub. Jesus is not the Tree of Life, he is the Saviour, come to end an era of violence. Temples crumble, the new church is about people and built on rock. And horses don't make it to the point of salvation.

The loose ends. At somewhere over double-size I can see another pole or tree in the back-right, and if you draw a line from the Saviour tree (wonder if it's an olive tree, don't know what they look like) to it, it looks like maybe even another tree or corner beyond it. It seems to mark the start of the cycle, and the line it would create through Mary's head and the foreground is the same as encloses the Magi. [Follow-up Note: In the Perspective Sketch you'll see that this was another structure, drawn to be more primitive than the temple. The corner pillar is the same distance from the Christ-tree as the temple's corner pillar. The Earlier perspective sketch put the whole background in a temple, which was later eliminated (or not completed) though it's form still dictates the layout of the back stage.]

Similarly, take the line drawn from the palm through the large tree, down to the Fore-right. If you extend that one through the back it divides the people on the staircase, wonder what they were going to be? I would guess the lower ones were still more pagan than progressive. On the perspective sketch there's a figure lower on the stairs who seems to be climbing on hands and knees, perhaps the higher-ups get to stand in the final image. In the sketch there are animals up on the balcony, though that could be as much about paganism as anything, and in the later image it became a more progressive temple. [Follow-up note: The Earlier Perspective Sketch only has two fields -- old and new -- it seems the idea to work a full-circle progression came later, with the ideas emerging in the later Perspective Sketch. Even the palm tree doesn't show until the final work, perhaps the thought of a hub rather than a bisection came after the Perspective sketch, and the idea of a tunnel and procession to create flow followed.]

And there's a final line, the one from Da Vince through Mary's head up to the Back-left and the arch. It makes a sort of dark trough trhough the people, with clear choices about who's drawn on each side. The visual crossroads is Mary's head, whose eyes direct the viewer to the Child. But she exists in a world where the trees are the hubs.

That was fun, we should do this more often.

Take care,

Copyright © 2001, 2002, 2003 Eli Robillard. All rights reserved.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada