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Christmas Story, Image 210

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Audio transcription

The rejoicing in the beginning of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is virtually overwhelming. The deeply felt joy of Christ’s birth is expressed by the drums, the bright flutes and resounding trumpets. „Shout for joy, exult, rise up, glorify the day“, all voices sing in unison. They urge the listeners, almost insistently to praise God and they carry the praise out into the world: „Let us honour the name of our ruler!“

The three kings, in exaltation and moved by the miracle of Christmas, also stand by the Christ child. In his painting „The Adoration of the Kings“, Hugo Van der Goes clads them magnificently, immortalizing their solemn, yet humble emotion. The kings’ pious severity contrasts the unabashed peace of the newly born child in Mary’s arms.

Its colors and creative differentiation, particularly its perspective and light, made this painting, which had been the middle of the triptych of the Spanish Monforte Altar, a model for subsequent painters. For an exhibition in 2023 in honour of Hugo van der Goes, Gemäldegalerie reconstructed the lost upper part of the painting; the subtle seamline is clearly visible. It also transpires that for a long time the painting, without its upper part, could not unfold its complete heavenwards striving effect. Through reconstruction, the jubilee of colours is further enhanced by the two angels clad in yellow and purple.

Mary and Joseph in a ruin, Jesus on Mary's lap. Three kings bring gifts, surrounded by angels. Openings show men observing the scene and landscapes.

Full Length Music

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Johann Sebastian Bach (1685–1750)
„Jauchzet, frohlocket“
from the Christmas Oratory
RIAS Kammerchor Berlin


Monforte-Altar (around 1470/75),
Hugo van der Goes,
Oak wood,
147.2 × 241.0 cm

Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Gemäldegalerie / Dietmar Gunne, David von Becker

Detail, Annexe

The painting was cropped and used as an altar in a Spanish monastery. The reconstructed upper half serves as a visible addition.
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Audio transcription

From an interview with Dagmar Hirschfelder, director of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

This work of art is the so-called Monforte Altar, named after its last home before it came to Berlin, which was in the Jesuit College in Monforte. It probably came towards the end of the 16th, beginning of the 17th century to Spain where it was cut so that it lost its upper part. We can equally see that the wings of the original triptych are missing, the frame is still showing the hinges where the wings had been fastened. We know from contemporary copies and variations of this painting that Christ’s birth had been depicted on the left and his circumcision on the right. The two panels must have gotten lost just like the top was cut off to make it fit into its new architectural framing in the church in Monforte. The Museums of Berlin have bought it in 1913 at the behest of Max Friedländer. The museum then restored it, laying bare the purple and yellow robes of the angels. On the occasion of a large exhibition project, curator Stephan Kemperdick saw to the restoration of the upper part. You can still see the seam where they added the reproduction of the lost part to the painting with its frame, which is deliberate, so that visitors can see that it doesn’t quite belong to the altarpiece (retable), but is an addition. The painting’s sense of space is brought back through this restoration. When you cover the upper part with your hand, the whole composition seems compressed. This openness, this spatial sense of development is missing. This is why we have kept this reconstruction in the exhibition rather than dismounting it again, so that viewers clearly see its original effect.

Detail, Kings

The Three Wise Men bring gifts. Each represents an age and a continent, while their magnificent attire emphasizes their royal dignity.
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Audio transcription

From an interview with Dagmar Hirschfelder, director of the Gemäldegalerie, spoken by Andrew Redmond, bass in the RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

The three Kings who come to honour and worship the Christ child express the festivity or gravity of the scene. They bring their offerings and at the same time symbolise the three ages. There’s the old man, the middle-aged man and the young King Balthasar, who also represent the three continents known at the time, Europe, Asia and Africa. This is the first Dutch art piece that depicts a black person, and none less than King Balthasar who is presented in a particularly interesting perspective.


We literally look down at his foot in this beautiful shoe and simultaneously from below glance at his hand and his face. Hugo [van der Goes] really draws us into his composition and invites us to participate in this godly event, the adoration of the Kings.

Detail, Hands

Praying hands of an older man, in the background a wooden stable door.
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Audio transcription

Aus einem Interview mit Gregor Meyer, künstlerischer Assistent des RIAS Kammerchor Berlin

Ein wahnsinnig beeindruckendes Bild! Und ich werde total fokussiert und fixiert auf die vielen Hände, die auf diesem Bild zu sehen sind. Ich hatte den Eindruck, dass der Meister auch zeigen wollte, wie toll er anatomisch arbeitet in einer Zeit, als das ja relativ neu war. Hände aus verschiedenen Perspektiven und Hände sind ja die Körperteile von uns, mit denen wir Dinge tun, mit denen wir uns verewigen und mit denen wir eben auch dienen. Und da gibt es eine schöne Brücke zu „Jauchzet, frohlocket“, zu dem Eingangschor von Johann Sebastian Bach. Er hat es auf eine kongeniale Art und Weise am Anfang dieses Satzes so kompositorisch umgesetzt, dass erstmal alle Instrumentengruppen dargestellt werden. Also die Pauke setzt ein, dann zeigen sich die Flöten, dann zeigen sich die Oboen, und dann kommen himmelsgleich die Geigen mit einer Linie von oben herab, und die Trompeten steigen von unten nach oben, und jeder dient mit seiner musikalischen Kompetenz der Sache, um die es hier geht, nämlich dem Herrn, dem Neugeborenen Heiland.

Main floor, Room V