Peter Paul Rubens’s portraits of the three Magi have finally been reunited – after being separated for over 130 years – by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. Tradition states that the three kings were named Balthasar, Gaspar, and Melchior, and that they represent the continents of Europe, Asia, and Africa, as well as the three ages of man.
The National Gallery owns one of the three paintings, of the middle-aged Melchior. Old Gaspar’s portrait belongs to Puerto Rico’s Museo de Arte de Ponce, and the image of Balthasar, the young king, is held by the Plantin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp, Belgium.
“They’ve not seen each other since, so this is pretty exciting,” the museum’s curator of northern Baroque paintings, Arthur K. Wheelock Jr., told the Washington Post.
Rubens was commissioned to paint the works around the time of 1618 by his childhood friend Balthasar Moretus, who ran Plantin Press, Europe’s largest printing press. Quite fittingly considering the commission, Moretus’s older brothers were named after the two other Magi. The trio of works, a symbol the friendship between two major 17th-century cultural figures, remained together for nearly 300 years, before parting ways at a Paris auction in 1881.
The Balthasar and Gaspar’s portraits were recently exhibited together in Puerto Rico, but the Melchior painting wasn’t able to join its counterparts there. The NGA received the work as a gift from the Chester Dale Collection in 1943, but on the condition that the masterpiece not travel or be displayed at other institutions, making this a very rare reunion indeed, possibly not to be repeated for some time to come.