These three exquisitely crafted kings on horseback were made in Ecuador in the 1700s. They were once part of a larger Christmas nativity scene that illustrated the biblical story of the birth of Jesus. First displayed in Europe in the 1500s, three-dimensional nativity scenes included the Holy Family—Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus—with angels, animals, shepherds, and the three kings. Elaborate nativity sets of the 1700s often included additional figures set in a contemporary town—merchants, beggars, housewives, children, cobblers, water sellers, soldiers—all going about their daily lives in the vicinity of the Holy Family.
The kings and horses are made of multiple pieces of wood that are joined together, carved, and finished with layers of gesso, gold and silver gilding, and paint. Fabric covered with animal glue, gesso, and paint was used to create the realistic collars and veils of the Kings. The horses have reins made of silk and saddles of beautifully executed barniz chinesco (silver leaf beneath colored glazes).
Through a generous grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, administered by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, all six figures recently underwent extensive conservation treatment. Significant insect damage was stabilized, painted surfaces were cleaned, and missing pieces—like King Balthasar’s scepter—were recreated. Some historic repairs (like wooden pieces on the horses’ feet) were left intact. Read here for more information on the conservation project.
The kings on horseback were collected in South America by Daniel Casey Stapleton. He was an entrepreneur and adventurer who lived and worked in Colombia, Ecuador and Panama from 1895–1915. Stapleton, an avid collector, sent shipments of paintings, sculpture, furniture, silver, decorative arts, and rare books, to his fiancé, Stella Hamilton, in Omaha, Nebraska.
Stapleton returned to the U.S. in 1915, at the outbreak of World War I, and settled with his wife in Washington D.C. The Stapletons decorated their house with their collection of South American art. In 1990, the Denver Art Museum was given a large portion of the Stapleton collection by his descendants, the Renchard family. Additional objects collected by D.C. Stapleton are on view in the Spanish Colonial art galleries.
Image credit (top): Three kings on horseback (left to right: Balthasar, Caspar, Melchior). Ecuador, 1700s. Painted and gessoed wood, silver and gold leaf, fabric. Gift of the Stapleton Foundation of Latin American Colonial Art, made possible by the Renchard family; 1990.547–.552
Courtney Murray, assistant objects conservator at the Denver Art Museum, also contributed to this blog.