My favourite painting: Orlando Rock

Orlando Rock, chairman of Christie's, chooses The Adoration of the Magi by Jacopo Bassano.

Orlando Rock on The Adoration of the Magi by Jacopo Bassano

‘This magical picture dominates our family drawing room at Burghley House. I am always drawn to the proud and defiant figure, resplendent in marine-blue velvet and shown in profile, who stands at the centre.

Identified as Giovanni Zorzi, he commissioned this sublime work for the Chapel of the Palazzo del Podesta in Bassano, in 1537–although it quickly ended up in Venice.

Its safe passage to Burghley by 1779 is a miracle in itself–the 9th Earl of Exeter’s handwritten notes in Orlandi’s Abecedario [a biographical dictionary] describe how it was purchased “in his gondola at night” from Signor Vitturi, a Venetian senator.

You cannot miss the towering mass of humanity on the right-hand side (who were the models?), a contrast to the serene space around the sacra conversazione. History comes alive through the knowledge of where it has hung since its creation.’

Orlando Rock is chairman of Christie’s.

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Charlotte Mullins comments on The Adoration of the Magi

Jacopo Bassano trained with Bonifazio Veronese in 16th-century Venice, but he opened his own studio in his home town of Bassano del Grappa. He was held in high regard during his lifetime, an artist who started out during the High Renaissance of Titian and ended his long career pre-empting the drama of Caravaggio.

This Adoration of the Magi dates from the 1530s, when he was in his twenties. A classical Virgin presents a robust baby Jesus to the three kings. Melchior and Caspar kneel down to pray and remove their crowns as Balthazar waits his turn, bedecked in thick gold chains, momentarily distracted.

It is a busy scene, with a muscular white horse and several carefully observed dogs sharing the shallow picture plane with a crowd of onlookers. There’s barely room to see the distant mountain and shepherds tending sheep on the grassy plain behind.

Bassano’s studio was known for adding naturalistic elements to Biblical scenes to make them more contemporary and accessible. In this painting, a dog is curled up on the Virgin’s blue robe, next to her bare foot, and the hunting dogs sniff the air. The African king Balthazar stands next to a man whose detailed profile suggests this may be a donor portrait.