The Adoration of the Magi

Who painted Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi ? 
Bringing the under-drawings to light

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In 1481, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned to paint a huge altarpiece for a monastery near Florence. This commission came at an early stage in his career, and although he was rapidly becoming acknowledged as an unusually talented painter, his major masterpieces, such as the Mona Lisa and The Last Supper, still lay before him. As with a number of his commissions, however, it was not completed. The unfinished work, now one of the most prized possessions of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, is a mixture of drawing and painting, with an overall orange colour from centuries of varnish and chemical transformation caused by exposure to light and air. 


Infra-red analysis

Dr Seracini has been studying this painting for more than a decade. Analysis has included using several different frequencies of light, including x-rays and two types of infra-red, as well as chemical analysis of several layers of varnish, paint and foundation, making The Adoration of the Magi the most analysed and perhaps best understood painting of the Renaissance. His team then assembled extraordinarily detailed ‘mosaics’ of the painting in each of the frequencies used. In order to do this, the painting was divided into 2,500 high-resolution images, each a centimetre or so across, at each wavelength and then reassembled to produce a superimposed three-dimensional computer image. This can then be analysed in many different ways, for example, by moving across the surface of the painting, or ‘drilling’ through several layers to the bare wood. It can also render some layers transparent, revealing a whole world of underdrawings that had barely been suspected.


Bringing the underdrawings to light

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Previously hidden figures can be seen building a staircase, giving the work sense of reconstruction rather than ruin.

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A striking example of a sharp Leonardo image shrouded by the anonymous painter.

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It is inconceivable to Seracini that Leonardo would have painted the Madonna with such pointy toes.

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Rampaging horses obscured by the paint provide an early clue to Leonardo’s revolutionary emphasis on movement.

In a discovery that shocked the Uffizi Gallery, Dr Seracini was able to prove that the top layer of The Adoration of the Magi that is visible to the naked eye was not by Leonardo. Detailed chemical analysis and microscopic examination demonstrated that the surface layer in the painted areas dated from 1530-1580, i.e. between 50 and 100 years after Leonardo had abandoned the work. Antonio Paolucci, a former fine arts minister who now supervises the Uffizi, has said that he was “surprised and disconcerted” at the findings. However, the detailed underdrawings proved a revelation, revealing a series of unknown Leonardo drawings that showed how he had originally planned and developed The Adoration of the Magi.


Leonardo, Studies of Hands c. 1481
Ultraviolet photographs (left) and as it appears today in the original (right)