Three kings, or three wise men from the East arrived in Bethlehem to worship the newborn infant Christ. While according to tradition, Joseph and Mary found shelter in a stable, the artist who painted this scene portrayed the Holy Family in the ruins of a huge palace. Above the entrance, God appears, descending amid a band of musical angels. In the background, between the columns, are the shepherds to whom Christ’s birth has just been announced: the last of the angels is still hovering in the air. Joseph is standing behind his wife, beside an ox and a donkey. The artist paid particular attention to the colourful entourage accompanying the kings: there are servants and thoroughbred horses, an elegant greyhound and even a dwarf with a parrot. The oldest of the kings is prostrate on his knees, looking up at the child who appears to be blessing him. Below right, a servant is removing gifts from a chest, including gold, frankincense and myrrh. Everyone, even the animals, wants to see the miraculous child seated on Mary’s lap.
The identity of the artist is no longer known, although the panel has long been part of the collection. It was given on loan to Museum Amstelkring in 1889, by the charitable society of the Almighty Saviour (Vereniging tot Weldadigheid van den Allerheiligsten Verlosser), and described at the time as an ‘elegant complete altar with Italian painting and blue reverse panel flanked by two twisted columns with gilded capitals... originally from a private chapel on Oude Schans here in the city.’
It has since been established that the work is not by an Italian master, rather by a follower of a Northern Netherlandish painter who made use of a drawing by Baldassare Peruzzi. That explains the appearance of Rome’s Castel Sant’Angelo to the right of the entrance and the triumphal arch on the left. It was not frowned upon in the sixteenth century to copy from other artists. Indeed, artistically competent copies of a painting were often worth just as much as the original.