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The Adoration of the Magi - Untere Belvedere, Vienna

Some years 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 child.

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 decoded them.

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.