The Artist’s Studio with Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist No. 1: “A Christmas Scene” by Mantagna (or “I’ve Just Learned How to Paint Turbans” by Frescobaldi di Ponti)

Penny Post is delighted to present The Artist’s Studio, an occasional series of articles in which our resident art expert –  Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist, Curator-at-Large of the Royal Kohnmann Gallery in Stoke Poges – is invited to reappraise a well-known painting.

Few will have forgotten Sir Courtney’s iconoclastic 1999 BBC7 series, Titan and Rubens: What a Pair of Bloody Idiots, nor the media storm caused a few years later when he attempted to prove and publicise a long-held theory that the The Entombment of Christ was painted not by Caravaggio but by Andy Warhol.

In this article, Sir Courtney – described by the Daily Mail as “the rudest man on television” – considers the suitably seasonal The Adoration of the Magi by (as most claim) Andreas Mantegna.


Before we go any further we’ve got to clear one thing up. Received wisdom tells us this is Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi. I thought I’d dealt with this puerile misapprehension some years ago. The amount of time I’ve spent writing to the Royal Academy and altering Wikipedia entries about this…anyway, it appears I need to point out, yet again, that it is in fact I’ve Just Learned how to Paint Turbans by Frescobalidi di Ponti (1469–1532). Di Ponti is regarded as being part of the so-called Triasso school of the time but this isn’t as grand as it sounds. The only artists in Triasso were him, his friend Luca who did cheap portraits but whose main business was painting and decorating and a mad old man who lived behind the fish shop and who claimed to be a sculptor.

Di Ponti was not a particularly talented artist but he was lucky in that his father was the mayor of Triasso. It was his father who commissioned this picture during lunch on 4th June 1493 – ‘Splash the cinnabar and burnt umber around as much as you like, son, daddy’s paying,’ that sort of thing. Young Frescobaldi got his paints out (as you can see, he’d run out of lapis lazuli) and had it done by tea time. He might not have been very good but he was bloody fast.

The composition is pretty standard with five adult figures and a baby. Five is an important number in 15th-century iconography, symbolising the number one greater than four and one less than six. Furthermore, the painting has two sides: the left, balanced (as was traditional at this time) by the right. It is worth noting that five times two is ten, the number of fingers on two hands (I’m counting the thumbs as fingers, obviously): while ten plus two is twelve, the number of guests at the Last Supper. Adding two and one together, one arrives at three, symbolising the Trinity. Three plus five is eight, lay them straight. Nine, ten, big fat hen. And so on.

First, on the far left, is a depiction of Jerimiah Corbini, a mythological figure from Islingtonia. He represents thwarted ideals and is usually shown wearing a red hat. You’ll notice that he’s the only one who hasn’t brought a present – and at Christmas as well – so little wonder he’s been shoved to one side, a position which excludes him from the main drama of the composition (whatever that is). In fact, I’m not at all sure that he isn’t just having a sniff of the perfume on the woman’s neck, like you do when you’ve been sitting stock still all afternoon in a damp studio. Passes the time.

Next to him is the Mother, an important iconographic character widely found in the art of this period, particularly when the artist or his patron felt they needed a woman in the painting to give it a bit of oooh-er: let’s face it, apart from being an heiress, a temptress or a nun there was bugger-all work for female models at that time. Particularly for Christmas scenes they had to be prepared to dress up as a mother – generally the Virgin Mary – and look all soulful. As you can tell, she’s got a sore neck and is completely knackered.

Then there’s the baby. Oh, come on. It’s baby Jesus, for goodness sake. Do I have to spell everything out for you?

Next to the baby is the ambiguous and sinister figure of Mourin-ho José, originally associated with wisdom and earthly triumph but by this period more frequently representing betrayal and a lack of grace. Normally found intruding into the centre of the composition, he is here also holding the ceremonial Sacred Lamp of Speech. This indicates that he is about to give utterance. As is customary, he’s paying no heed to anyone else in the picture being more concerned, as usual, with making himself the focus of our unwilling attention. You can see that the baby is trying to make a grab for the Sacred Lamp of Speech. Let him bloody try, that’s all I can say.

The bloke on the right isn’t a bloke at all but a hermaphrodite. That surprised you, didn’t it? Di Ponti was a bit strange and generally had at least one in all his paintings (see Re’em, Daniel: Hermaphrodidic Depictions on the Right Edge of Paintings Featuring people Wearing Red Turbans – an Examination of the Conventions of the Triasso School, a seminal work which surely says all there is to be said on the subject and is unlikely to superseded). Hermaphrodites symbolise duality, androgyny and sexual ambiguity. Well, of course they do. What else would you expect them to symbolise?

I don’t have any idea who the bald figure in the foreground is. He’s venerable enough to symbolise pretty much anything you want but I suspect he’s a picture bomber who was passing and thought ‘wer-hey – here’s a chance to get myself into a famous painting.’ The cup he’s holding has been suggested by various asinine so-called ‘experts’ to be representative variously of hope, despair, eternal life, damnation, purgatory, redemption, false witness, truth, disappointment, time, death, evil, canal holidays and Bulgaria (quite a lot, for a cup). In fact, it’s a cup of tea. Sometimes a cup is just a cup. Look – he hasn’t even taken the bag out, the pissed old fool. You can see the string, for god’s sake.

Oh yes, there’s another thing that proves it’s by di Ponti – he couldn’t paint ears. Not a bloody clue. He’s famous for it. “You can’t paint ears!” the children in Triasso used to shout at him in the street, the little scamps. That’s why he liked turbans so much. If you do a turban you don’t have to worry about ears, do you? He’d just learned to do turbans which is why we get a lot of them here, all la-di-dah with swirly paint and big colours. But the ears let him down every time. Look at the only two ears you can see, on Mourin-ho José and the tramp. He makes them both look like Dumbo. Not that edifying, are they?

He couldn’t do backgrounds, either. On this occasion, he didn’t even try. Some people say ‘oh, that’s a clever technique to draw attention to the juxtaposition of the figures and to create a sense of timelessness to the message.’ Bollocks. He couldn’t paint backgrounds, end of. Trees, houses, castles, sunsets – all rubbish. A six-year-old could do better.

Finally, it’s not much of an adoration – not one of them is even looking at the baby, which is what they’re meant to be doing there (according to the bloody “experts”). Corbini is looking at the Mother, the Mother’s falling asleep, Mourin-ho José is probably looking a reflection of himself in a mirror behind the painter, the hermaphrodite is looking at Mourin-ho while the tramp in the foreground looks as if he’s about to pass out altogether. The baby could burst into flames and none of them would bat an eyelid. Everyone is locked in their own private concerns. In the final analysis, this painting is all about self-obsession, self-importance and an utter inability to communicate. You can take my word for it – I’m an expert in these things.

I’ve Just Learned how to Paint Turbans currently hangs in the Volkzmarji Gnopk kanj Vloorzvitchzij Museum, wherever the hell that is. Google it if you’re really interested.

Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist
Curator-at Large
The Royal Kohnmann Gallery
Stoke Poges

• For further articles, please click here
• For other reappraisals by Sir Courtney, please click here and here.

• For songs, please click here

The Artist’s Studio with Sir Courtney Inchbold-Grist


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