The painting centrally depicts the Mother of God with the Christ Child on her lap in a large horizontal format. She is sitting enthroned in the entrance area of the ruins of a stable in which Joseph as well as an ox and donkey can be seen. Guided by the star which is being held in the hands of an angel here, the three Magi dressed in lordly garments are approaching from the right. The oldest among them is already genuflecting in order to kiss the hand of the Son of God incarnate and to present him with his casket filled with gold, while the other two are holding their gifts in readiness. Differentiated in terms of age and skin colour, they represent the three periods of life and at the same time the three continents known at the time: Africa, Asia and Europe. The significance of the scene, in which the worldly rulers recognise the small child as the ruler of the world, is evidently accentuated by the solemn, majestic red background.
The images of donors on the left picture margin additionally appear as a special feature in this painting. Differentiated and at the same time appearing as witnesses to the event, the three women and a man are addressing their prayers to the Christ Child. The following is inscribed on the man’s speech scroll: “Oh, you young child and old God, have mercy on me.” Based on their coats of arms they are among the lesser nobility from the vicinity of Altenberg on the Lahn River. The painting was displayed in the Premonstratensian abbey there in the 19th century. It was presumably also painted for this purpose.
This magnificent painting fits in wonderfully with the permanent collection at Museum Schnütgen. There it can be viewed in close proximity and in comparison with the relief of the Magi by woodcarver Arnt van Kalkar and Zwolle. In addition, it is linked to several changes in the presentation of the collection: Museum Schnütgen focuses on the depiction of the saints and the safekeeping of their venerated mortal remains under the title “Auf den Spuren von Reliquien und Heiligen – Neue Wege zur Kunst des Mittelalters” (“On the trail of relics and saints – new paths for medieval art”). In this context, the painting from Braunfels Castle is exemplarily equated with the three Magi, especially since their preciously designed vessels containing gifts (for presentation of gold, frankincense and myrrh) resemble reliquaries in terms of form and materiality. These works of art can be seen concentrated in several museum sites since November.