Adoration of the Magi - Untere Belvedere, Vienna
ago, strolling in the Oesterreichische Galerie in the Untere
Belvedere in Vienna I was struck by a painting representing
a sort of adoration of the Magi. I'm saying a sort of because
the images were strange and mysterious. In fact a search of
the literature did show that practically no art critic had
dared to produce the usual disquisitions. Only in 1909 in
the frame of an overview about the adoration of the magi in
European art and literature Hugo Kehrer spent half a page,
squeamish about the strangeness of the painting dubbed as
a case of Entartung der Gothische Stil, I would translate
degenerated Flemish art. He did not attempt an attribution
which to date remains the circular " master who did it"
as sometimes art expert cover their ignorance. There is however
a date attributed to the painting, about 1492 probably derived
from the coat of arms camping in the centre.
It is a table of about 60x100 cm, representing
two old Magi at the left, a Madonna, dressed with a spreading
gown and a sort of Flemish cap, holding a sicklish child.
Behind the Madonna stands an old and shy St Joseph. The third
Magus at the right is a young african, a vigorous creature
in his thirties, holding an elaborated glass pyx. What did
strike me en passant was the mustard mantle this Balthazar,
the black Magus, was wearing. The folds did fall with the
outmost elegance. The mantle is very short, a sort of mini
skirt, enhancing the elegance of the legs in bright red stockings,
ending in curious and sexy beak shoes. As an occasional student
of Leonardo I told myself that only one painter could have
represented in 1490 a mini skirt with such extraordinary elegance
and modernity, so to speak. The Untere Belvedere is at walking
distance from my place in Vienna, and I dedicated frequent
visits to the painting.
At a certain point all the strangeness
did start taking an internal logic, if terrible. Balthazar,
the African king, vas obviously a Viado dressed with the colours
prostitutes were wearing at the time, mustard mantle and red
stockings, on top of a very provocative attitude. The other
two Magi, in spite of their classical standing ready to kiss
Jesus hands and other things, were in fact staring at him
with outmost erotic arousal. This appears from the general
physiognomy and especially from the details. Both salivate
and make little tongue, showing the tip of the rolled tongue,
an age old signal to suggest intercourse. The Christ child
is rotten, afflicted by all sort of skin ailments and bone
dislodging in the heavily distorted face and in the shoulder.
The little hand he is presenting for the kiss has phalanges
missing presumably due to tertiary leprosy.
Even at this very first level of observation,
the composition made much sense to me. Leonardo was raped
when he was a little child, he says that in a transparent
way in the much quoted sentence that gave even origin to a
famous book by Freud. As my decoding of messages, encrypted
in his paintings and drawings has shown, the rapes did continue
till Leonardo left for Florence and were perpetrated by five
sinister guys. The band of five. Their faces and the details
of the innumerable rapes are in the crypts, so I can recognize
them at first sight. The two Magi at the left are two of the
old rapists, and the object of temptation, the black youngster,
is Leonardo in person. Also the little Jesus is a Leonardo.
It is completely rotten because Leonardo was raped. Raped
children see themselves dirty and rotten. In spite of being
a sacrilegious mind, he had a knack for choosing the best
hierarchical position in the religious structure. The ages
of the adults fit as the black Magus appears to be in his
thirties, the two Magi in their sixties and the Madonna in
her fifties. The Madonna is Leo's mother who was about 18
when Leo was born. Little Jesus has the usual age of a little
The two Magi are dressed in apparently
pompous way that appears as a caricature once one goes to
details. The standing Magus wears a dark crown on which little
frills are implanted and pop out. The base of the crown however
is made by two solid water buffalo horns nicely held in place
with a scarf knotted under the chin. The face is worn out
by various skin illnesses including a monstrous hare-lip from
which emerges the twisted tongue in the obscene gesture. The
second one is kneeling, thick and slimy feigning to kiss the
ruined hand of the child.
His eyes however are perforating the African Magus and the
mouth slobbers in a trickle with the twisted obscene tongue
surfacing between the lips.
One of the detail that did upset the
author of the 1909 analysis is a gesture of the Madonna with
her left hand, with exposed ditus impudicus, "searching
the gown in a pointless gesture" according to Hugo Kehrer.
To my malignant eye the gesture did sound highly trivial if
softened by the fact the middle finger points down. As I had
started trafficking around the painting taking pictures, it
was prudently transferred to the magazine and I had to stop.
After a couple of years the director did change, I got the
permission to photograph it and the story re-starts there.
Restarts in fact by turning the famous hand upward that reveals
first, un-attenuated, the obscene gesture. Zooming on the
hand I saw a little bluish spot near the tip of the middle
finger. A closer examination did show the outline of a soaring
bird, extended wings and spread out tail. If the bird, a kite
(nibbio) in fact, was soaring high as the bluish atmosphere
does suggest, then the finger points up to heaven in a majestic
fuck you gesture.
As Vasari suggests in the first edition
of his "Vite" Leonardo had a sacrilegious mind,
that I was able to reconstruct as a kind of cosmic hatred.
He obviously resented the violence when he was a little child,
especially because everybody knew, his father, his mother,
the village, the priest, God and the Madonna, but nobody came
to rescue the poor thing. So his vision became that the world
is splendid at the surface, but rotten in dept. This vision
is reported in his work. Everybody sees the beauty and is
struck by it. But zooming into the shade and the details one
finds horrendous visions if hidden with skilful mimetic tricks.
Between the soaring bird and the finger
I saw a brilliant point that could be a piece of dirt or a
little drop of varnish. However having taken good quality
macros I could zoom on the point where I discovered the most
unexpected spectacle. There are many fainter points around,
white and coloured. Four of them near the first one were suggesting
the satellites of Jupiter. Using an astronomical computer
model, "Starry nights" I made the satellites move
around Jupiter till I found the same configuration. Incidentally
the system is not seen as it appears in a telescope, where
the satellites are luminous points that oscillate left and
right of Jupiter, their orbits being on the ecliptic, as that
of the earth. They are looked at from a point perpendicular
to the plane of the ecliptic as the solar system is represented
in our atlases. As a linear set of points nobody would have
The fact Leonardo had discovered Jupiter's
moons was to be expected, after the splendid set of telescopes
he had constructed, especially when he was in Rome at the
service of Pope Leo X. In fact I was wondering that this technological
power masterly reconstructed by Prof Argentieri of the Milano's
Politecnico had not produced a single statement in Leonardo
scripts with the exception of meek comments like " Fare
occhiale per vedere luna grande". On the other side Leonardo
had a big ego and couldn't escape the imperative of telling
humanity the infinite marvels he alone had seen. It must also
be clear that at his time talking around about the things
he could have observed with his telescopes would have meant
the stake. Just consider what did happen to Galileo a century
later. The contemporary Copernicus, who was just recycling
some ancient ideas, knew it well and had his cosmological
model safely published only after his death.
Accidental exploration of the dark blue
mantle of the Madonna showed again that Jupiter was just the
beginning, all the mantle is a magnificent sky map, however
with such a resolution that identification of star clusters
and nebulas becomes a very professional affair. I tried with
various professional astronomers, but they have become so
specialized, they just look into their computers and tables
and may have problems identifying the Great Bear out at night.
On the other side, strangely, it seems that inverse programs
to identify a certain sky image do not exist. Programs, I
mean, that given a sky map can tell you the approximate position
in the sky. Starry Night could then reconstruct the situation
in detail as done for Jupiter.
These are glimpses for introducing
the subject, I will write a full article for this site to
explain the infinite subtleties of the composition. I would
greatly appreciate the help of an old astronomer with 1000
hours of direct observation.