by Doctor Science
My foray into Art of the Low Countries fandom continues apace. (Previous installment: How cleanliness sat down next to godliness) Today I bring you Pieter Aertsen's Adoration of the Magi, with some observations that have never before been published, as far as I can tell.
Here's the painting, currently in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam:
The work was originally a triptych altarpiece; the right-hand folding panel has been lost. I don't know when the left-hand panel was reunited with the larger center piece. The triptych was painted in about 1560.
The Adoration of the Magi (or Kings) is a standard subject in Christian art, and was very popular for altarpieces over many centuries. In the crowd of fundamentally similar pictures, this one has two aspects that are strikingly unusual if not unique. And no, I'm not talking about the fact that the Baby Jesus appears to be giving the first King five.
The first oddity is, as Sprog the Elder said when she saw this picture over my shoulder, "What's the Buddha doing there?"
By this period, the standard iconography of Adoration scenes had developed to the point where you would expect to see the Magi as three kings, each representing one of the 3 traditional continents: Europe, Africa, and Asia. They generally were shown as being of different ages, too: Asia as an old man (and thus first in line), Africa a young one, and Europe a vigorous man in his middle years.
At first I thought that the young man we're looking at was supposed to be Asia, but then I realized he's just an attendant to the old King who's greeting Jesus. Africa is on the left-hand door, and presumably Europe was represented on the missing right-hand panel.
In other paintings of the Magi, the Asian King's attendants are sometimes shown in vaguely "Turkish" outfits, but I haven't been able to find any looking as Buddha-like as this figure. I agree with Sprog: his downcast eyes, Mona Lisa smile, and face shape are precisely that of a Buddha, not of a figure from conventional European iconography.
If he's the Buddha, how did Aertsen know what he's supposed to look like? And what is that on his head?
I've hunted high and low through the history of costume and of art, and I haven't found anything like the collection of straps this figure seems to be wearing on his head. However, it does give me a kind of familiar feeling, and I think this is why:
These are three versions of the head of the Buddha: from Java in the 9th century CE, from Sri Lanka in the 15th-16th century, and from Thailand in the 15th century. As you can see, a convention had developed to show the Buddha's hair in small, tight coils -- what Americans today would think of as a distinctively African hairstyle, and one likely to be completely novel for northern Europeans in the 16th century.
I think that Aertsen didn't get enough of a look at an image of the Buddha to realize that this was supposed to be *hair*. I deduce that he figured it was a helmet or arming cap of some sort, and the strappy cap is his attempt to depict something like what he saw. It also looks as though he interpreted the elongated earlobes (part of the conventional representation) as part of the headgear.
But is it really plausible that Aertsen had seen an image of the Buddha? This picture was painted around 1560, possibly for the New Church in Delft (Vermeer and the Delft School, Walter Liedtke, pp 36-37). Aertsen worked in Antwerp from about 1535 until 1556 or so, when he returned to Amsterdam, where he had been born.
In 1560 the era of Dutch trade with Asia had not yet really begun. The Dutch East India Company wasn't founded until 1602, after Jan Huyghen van Linschoten and Cornelis de Houtman brought back detailed knowledge of the routes to India and the Spice Islands. Neither of these explorers had even been born when Aertsen painted the "Adoration".
Yet though the Dutch weren't trading with the Indies *directly*, the Antwerp Aertsen knew was one of the largest and busiest ports in the world. The Portuguese spice trade fleet used Antwerp as their endpoint and home base. They couldn't break the Venetian lock on the Mediterranean trade to southern Europe, so they made Antwerp into their main distribution center for the underserved northern European spice market.
Along with the spices, traders and sailors would have picked up a grab-bag of other goods, for speculation or as presents or because they were drunk at the time. I suggest, then, that Aertsen saw some representation of the Buddha among these goods, and was struck enough by it to at least make detailed, accurate sketches of the face. It's quite possible that he didn't know a name for the figure or anything about the religion it came from. I further deduce that he didn't have the figure in his studio, because I don't think he'd have painted the strappy cap if he had had a better look at the model.
I have skimmed through all kinds of material, and I now wonder: might this be the first depiction of the Buddha in Western art or literature? (Not counting the popular legends about Saint Josaphat, whose story started out as being about Siddhartha.)
There's a great project here for someone who can find and read the primary sources: is there any direct evidence that images of the Buddha arrived in Europe before 1600, or even 1700? They would probably have been bronze, because it wouldn't break or mold on the way. My assumption is that they were occasionally picked up by Portuguese and later Dutch sailors and merchants, but there was no real market for them in Europe. Less, probably, than the market for Hindu images, which would have looked interestingly macrabre or salacious to European eyes. Many images of the Buddha are not dissimilar to Christian saints -- indeed, I think it quite possible that the image Aertsen saw was picked up because the traveler thought it *was* a Christian saint, there on the far side of the world. But this similarity was either uncomfortable or uninteresting to most Europeans, and few Buddhist objects appear to have made it even into cabinets of curiosities, though the possibility is certainly worth more research.
I haven't find any similar image in the rest of Aertsen's oeuvre, but that may because it contains gaps. In 1566 there was an outbreak of iconoclasm in the Low Countries, with Protestant protestors (or mobs) attacking and destroying Catholic works of art for being idolatrous "graven images". Aertsen had painted many altarpieces and other prominent Catholic works which were destroyed; a biographical note states that he
was often in an incensed state of mind, because the works he once hoped to leave the world were destroyed in this tragic way; and many times he had such bitter arguments with the enemies of art that he almost brought himself in danger.(Van Mander, quoted in Moxey, 1976).) Aertsen died in 1575.
The other extremely odd and striking aspect to the Adoration is ... something I will talk about in another post, because I have once more proven that I tend to run off at the keyboard.
Meanwhile, look at the picture, and tell me what strikes *you*.
 The idea that there were three kings is what fandom calls fanon: any element that is widely accepted among fans, but has little or no basis in canon. The Gospel of Matthew doesn't say how many Magi there were, but since they give three gifts (gold, frankincense, and myrrh) it was generally assumed in the West that there were three (important) Magi. Eastern Orthodox fanon is that the Magi numbered twelve.