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Abstract: Discussion of the structural layout of Da Vinci's "Adoration of the Magi". Prior works note the significance of the palm tree and divide the painting's stage into two parts representing old and new. This document identifies four distinct areas and notes the visual and spatial techniques used to tell a more textured story. In this interpretation the Madonna figure is merely the visual hub, the palm tree becomes the real focus of the painting and the hub around which it turns. If this has been done before I'd rather link to a document written by someone who knows what they're talking about. If not then here ya go. Note on reading: Yes, it starts unfocused but does find the point pretty quick.

From: Eli Robillard
To: Jason
Subject: Re: 'scuse me while I pick your brain
Date sent: Tue, 19 Jun 2001 15:16:35 -0400
Last modified: Wednesday, 12 Feb 2003

On 19 Jun 2001, at 5:41, Jason wrote:
> I don't know whether you're familiar with the attached painting (or is it an
> etching?), but I'm still stuck on the tree thing and found this really
> engaging; what do you think da Vinci was trying to say here?

According to online sources, a tourguide would say this is unfininished, done in ochre. Leonardo is the figure in the bottom right. In the back right there is a battle against some sort of beast. There is a figure on the brink of death somewhere (maybe the guy just to the right of the large tree). And most pertinent: the tree of life is understood as the demarcation between the old, pagan ways and the new.

The perspective sketch Da Vinci did in planning is great. It holds several answers. There is a copy here:
Perspective Sketch

The growth of ideas from the sketch to the final work is important. Mainly, the tree isn't a mere demarcation between old and new. Like any other religion the tree is a hub, not a line. Da Vinci thought spatially, not in top half / bottom half. The sketch might have a clear "top" and "bottom," but the final work has much more flow. There are four quadrants -- starting with back-right, proceeding to back-left, fore-left, and finally fore-right. And a concise storyline flows in that order.

The back-right is "where it started" or a state of confusion, paganism. Back-left is an ascent out of that with a man-made structure. As you get further to the left, around the circle, the structure collapses to ruins. The arch isn't on the perspective drawing, it may be a later thought. But the only path from the back to the front of the image is through that arch. Looks like a horse coming through, the way it is being greeted it may be a procession, it is hard to tell. The arch/channel may suggest re- birth but that's a stretch. At the least we can be sure it's a path, and traffic moves in the direction of the circle.

The Magi are the three figures arranged in a triangle below Mary, one to our right, two to the left. The one on the right has presented his gift, I still see one between the others, so they move from left to right as well.

The big tree looks like it grows out of the rock, so if it represents the Child, that would be consistent with the Book. In the perspective sketch there was grass around it, but not here. Notice also what happens when you draw straight lines from its base -- you can make a triangle which encompasses Mary and the Magi, but misses the poor bastards with the bleak faces to the right. My guess is that line is the frontier and the only guy beyond it in luck is the one looking to the tree for salvation. The one whose head is on the line, looking at the Child would do well to follow his buddy's lead, but by his gesture he is still questioning. Da Vinci puts himself right on the line. He was 29 and about to break away from his master and set his own course. He knew what he was capable of and had the ego to put himself along that line. Bold move. Makes me wonder if the guy in the fore-left corner represents his master.

Okay, so the Tree of Life / World Tree is the palm. The foreground tree represents the Saviour. The picture is arranged as a procession or transformation with the Tree of Life as its hub. Jesus is not the Tree of Life, he is the Saviour, come to end an era of violence and opression. Temples crumble, the new church is about people and built on rock. And horses don't make it to the point of salvation.

The loose ends. At somewhere over double-size I can see another pole or tree in the back-right, and if you draw a line from the Saviour tree (is it an olive tree?) to it, it looks like there may be another tree or corner beyond it. It seems to mark the start of the cycle, and the line it would create through Mary's head and the foreground is the same as the one which encloses the Magi. [Follow-up Note: In the Perspective Sketch you will see that this was another structure, drawn to be more primitive than the temple. The corner pillar is the same distance from the Christ-tree as the temple's corner pillar. The Earlier perspective sketch put the whole background in a temple, which was later eliminated (or not completed) though it's form still dictates the layout of the back stage.]

Similarly, take the line drawn from the palm through the large tree, down to the fore-right. If you extend that one through the back it divides the people on the staircase. I would guess the lower ones were still more pagan than "progressive." On the perspective sketch there is a figure lower on the stairs who seems to be climbing on hands and knees, perhaps the higher-ups get to stand in the final image. In the sketch there are animals on the balcony, though that could be as much a stage of paganism as anything, in the later image it became a more progressive temple. [Follow-up note: The Earlier Perspective Sketch only has two fields -- old and new -- it seems the idea to work a full-circle progression came later, with the ideas emerging in the later Perspective Sketch. Even the palm tree doesn't show until the final work, it seems the thought of a hub rather than a bisection came after the Perspective sketch, and the idea of a tunnel and a procession to create flow followed.]

And there is a final line, the one from Da Vinci through Mary's head up to the back-left and the arch. It makes a sort of dark trough through the people, with clear choices about who's drawn on each side. The visual crossroads is Mary's head, whose eyes direct the viewer to the Child. In her world the saviours tree is the hub.

That was fun, we should do this more often.

Take care,
Eli.


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