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Die Anbetung der Könige (The Adoration of the Magi), Gemäldegalerie, Berlin

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Die Anbetung der Könige (Worshipping of the Kings) — The Adoration of the Magi — Antonio Vivarini (in collaboration with Giovanni d'Alemagna), 1419-20, Murano. (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin. [/B]
One reminder of Berlin's tragic history of partition into West and East lies in a memorial a few hundred yards from its famous Brandenburg Gate. Under the shade of linden trees, black-and-white, poster-size photographs depict those who died at the hands of their compatriots in pursuit of freedom.

If you look carefully, you can see the remnants of the Iron Curtain — in symmetrical white paving blocks — imbedded in the street, sidewalk, and ground — marking the infamous Berlin Wall. When it finally came down in 1989 Berlin, once again, was united.

And so were masterpieces that survived the war only to be divided for decades between East Berlin's Bode Museum and West Berlin's Dahlem Museum — until the superb Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery) was built in 1998.

I walk there, along the tree-lined Tiergartenstrasse and after about thirty minutes I reach the Kulturforum (Culture Forum) and the Gemäldegalerie, which houses one of the world's best collections of paintings.

I am, as you know, on the lookout for The Nativity, but who can resist a Jan Van Eyck, Peter Paul Rubens, Rembrandt, Masaccio, Fra Angelico, or Sandro Botticelli? To share with you on these pages, I fill many a 4-gig flash card with Gemäldegalerie masterpieces, clicking away with my brand-new, 22 megapixel, Canon Mark II digital camera.

The brilliant ultramarine of the Madonna's cloak stands out among all the gold — and low relief — of halos, golden rays surrounding the Holy Ghost, hat, golden vessel held by Joseph, and buttons of the kneeling King, in this closeup of Vivarini's masterpiece. (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin).  
Die Anbetung der Könige (The Adoration of the Magi)

The galleries of the Gemäldegalerie form a "U" around a grand, central hall. Large, round windows let in the un, filling the hall with light. But the galleries themselves are lit by indirect light through unseen windows high above. This diffused light caresses the paintings, saturating the color. The paintings seem to glow, especially against the off-white (in some of the galleries), velvet wall covering that absorbs light and prevents unwanted reflections. Even the unobtrusive oak parquet floor in dark shades of brown seems designed to not visually interfere with the exhibits.

In most world-class museums, I'm lucky to find a few paintings of The Nativity, but here I strike gold. I count ten, twenty, thirty — and more! You can imagine how thrilled I am to come upon Die Anbetung der Könige (The Adoration of the Magi), a large painting — 69 x 43 inches. It hangs between an archangel and a bishop, and was painted in 1419-20 by Antonio Vivarini (1420-1484) in collaboration with his brother-in-law Giovanni d'Alemagna.

A prolific Venetian artist, Antonio Vivarini was a descendant of a family of Murano glassworkers. He often painted with his brother-in-law Giovanni and his brother Bartolomeo, and established the influential Murano School. His age — the 15th century — was suspended between the old and the new — as Byzantine and Gothic traditions were being swept aside by the Early Renaissance.

The Adoration of the Magi is crowded with figures in elaborate, richly ornamented apparel trimmed with gold. But it's not the gold that attracts my eye, but the brilliant ultramarine of the Madonna's cloak. Even when the light in the gallery dims as a cloud passes overhead, and all the gold in the halos, crowns, scepters, vessels, belts, hats, flags and standards, costumes, horse reignment, earthly and angelic trumpets, angels' wings, and the elipses of light surrounding God the Father and the Holy Ghost momentarily loses its shimmer, the ultramarine of the Virgin still shines as if lit from within.

It's lapis lazuli, a precious stone ground and mixed with bonding agents, that produces this deep, ethereal blue that once was prized more than gold. It could only be procured in far-away Afghanistan, and was used sparingly, to impart an unmatched radiance in Vavarini's painting.

High officials, knights, and pages intermingle in The Adoration of the Magi. (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.)  
Earthly and ethereal worlds are juxtaposed masterfully within the gold frame of The Adoration of the Magi. Above, the Heavenly Host intertwines wings, trumpets, and cross-bearing flags, while a duo of angels unfurl a gold "Gloria in Altis[s]imis Deo" banner. (Gloria in altissimis Deo et in terra pax in hominibus bonae voluntatis. "Glory in the Highest to God, and on earth peace to men of good will.")

Surrounded by this Anglelic Host, God the Father — arms outstretched in embrace — looks down from an elliptical sphere representing the Heavens. Golden rays, some in low relief, emanate in all directions to shine above The Nativity as another gold ellipsis that encloses the Holy Ghost in the form of a dove (see closeup, above, and full view, bottom of page).

The Angelic Multitude is suspended, on the upper left of the painting, above a turreted, walled town. Could it be representing Jerusalem? On the upper right-hand side, angels are shown above fields where shepherds "Keep their watch by night." A shepherd, dressed in a heavy, wooly, hooded coat, stands supported by his staff, a seated shepherdess holds a distaff and spins wool on a hand spindle, a ram is taking a nap, and two goats and their kid forage.

Over fields and hills the retinue of the Three Kings approaches, a veritable crusade of horsemen and knights on foot. And what a magnificent retinue it is — see the close-up of one of the Kings at left) — as the three Kings mingle with acolytes, knights, pages, stable boys, trumpeters, and horses.

It would take an art historian, not a photographer-cum-crèche enthusiast, to do justice in describing Vivarini's beautiful painting. The eliptical theme of the Heavenly Sphere and that of the Holy Ghost is visually echoed by the composition itself: the placement of the heavenly and earthly figures themselves form an elliptical circle that causes the eye to wonder round and round, bouncing within the frame like a ball in an electronic game.

But my eyes keep returning to the standing King (Caspar? Close-up at left) with flowing hair, pleated costume, gold-and-jeweled embroidered cape, and gold crown, holding a gold covered vessel. The gold relief makes this King almost jump off the surface of the painting, adding another dimension to Vivarini's masterpiece.

One of the three Kings — bejeweled and resplendent in cloth of gold — seems almost three-dimensional due to Vivarini's gilt embossing. (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin.)  
The other two Kings — Melchior and Balthazar? — are also royally appareled. Melchior is standing, holding open the lid of his gift, a golden box. In addition to this gold dress he is wearing a turban below his crown, to underscore his provenance as one of the Kings of the East.

In fact, many of the flags and standards held aloft by the Kings' retinue also bear Arabic-like inscriptions or the half-moon-and-star emblem that denotes lands of the far East.

The third King is kneeling, tenderly kissing the Child's foot that he's holding in his left hand, and his halo of concave arcs shimmers with gold (see video, top of page).

On the right-hand side, a grand vizier-like figure in a tall, fancy hat holds a god scepter, and two similarly-dressed knights in fancy, billowing cloaks look on attentively. Between the vizier and the knights a colorful young page holds a golden trumpet.

The line of kingly followers disappears behind hills, seemingly stretching to the horizon, but the eyes return, again and again, to the Madonna of the ultramarine cloak.

The Virgin, seated, is gently holding the Child on her lap, and her glance — unlike depictions of the Mother of God in Byzantine iconography — is turned not to the onlooker (inspiring reverence) to to her infant, imparting tenderness.

Joseph, holding the kneeling King's gift of a half-moon-shaped gold vessel, looks on, under the gold sphere of the Holy Ghost, a Biblical reference to Matthew 3:17: "And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

Vivarini's Die Anbetung der Könige, The Adoration of the Magi, one of the masterpieces of Berlin's Gemäldegalerie.  

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