Fol. 61v

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Jean Poyer

Sext: Adoration of the Magi

Hours of Henry VIII, in Latin
Illuminated by Jean Poyer

France, Tours
ca. 1500
256 x 180 mm

The Dannie and Hettie Heineman Collection; deposited in 1962, given in 1977

MS H.8 (fol. 61v)
Item description: 

Illuminated around 1500 by the artist Jean Poyer, The Hours of Henry VIII receives its name from the possible but unproven eighteenth-century tradition that holds King Henry of England once owned this splendid manuscript. By following the simple instructions, you can explore every painting of this Renaissance masterpiece and learn how Books of Hours helped their readers to pray.

Books of Hours contain more or less standard texts—Calendar, Gospel Lessons, Hours of the Virgin, Hours of the Cross, Hours of the Holy Spirit, Penitential Psalms with Litany, Office of the Dead, and Suffrages—as well as a number of common accessory prayers. Based on the frequency and variety of added devotions, it appears that scribes included these for owners who wished to personalize their prayer books.

Page description: 

Sext: Adoration of the Magi (fol. 61v)

In Poyer's Adoration, the Virgin, in an act of humility, sits on the ground as each of the Magi presents his gift to the child standing on her lap. The innate nobility of the Magus is achieved by some of Poyer's most inspired painting, especially evident in his closely observed facial features, gold earring, and exotic turban.

Caspar, the name supplied for the oldest Magus, has removed his crown in deference to Christ as King, kneels and presents gold; the second, holding a chalice with incense, waits his turn; while the youngest, still at a distance, stands erect and holds a monstrance.

Poyer designed his compositions like stage sets: the ruinous stone arches of the stable will reappear in the Massacre of the Innocents (cf. folio 69v), and the ox and ass eat hay from the wattled manger that previously served as Christ's cradle.

In the later Middle Ages, when the Magi were connected with the three continents known then (Europe, Africa, Asia), Balthazar was increasingly depicted as a black man. In some late- fifteenth-century paintings, however, as here, it was the youngest Magus who was so depicted.

Adoration of the Magi
According to the Gospel of Matthew (2:1–12), wise men from the East who saw the star signifying the birth of the King of the Jews went to adore him at Jerusalem, only to discover that he was born in Bethlehem (fulfilling the prophecy of Micheas 5:2). Since the wise men offered three gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh—it was assumed as early as the third century that they were three; about the same time they were redefined as kings, and by the ninth century they were supplied with the familiar names of Caspar (the oldest), Balthazar, and Melchior (the youngest). In the later Middle Ages, when the Magi were connected with the three continents known then (Europe, Africa, Asia), Balthazar was increasingly depicted as a black man. Their gifts were also given various explanations. According to St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), the gold gave testimony to the Virgin's poverty, the incense purified the smell of the stable, and myrrh strengthened the child's limbs (driving out the worms from his entrails). For the Venerable Bede (672/73–735) they signified the royalty, divinity, and humanity of Christ: gold for royal tribute to the highest king; incense for divine worship since he was God; and myrrh for burial, foreshadowing his own death, since he was a mortal man. These explanations were popularized in printed editions of the Golden Legend (compiled by Jacobus de Voragine before 1267).