Frederic, Lord Leighton, P.R.A. (British, 1830–1896)
The Star of Bethlehem, ca. 1862
Oil on canvas, 61 x 21 3/4 in.

Although now best known for his innovative classical themes, in the 1860s Leighton created a series of biblical compositions including his powerful Star of Bethlehem. The subject of this work, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1862, is a New Testament theme—though it does not reference a specific event in the Gospels. The bearded figure in a richly draped robe could be identified as a number of biblical figures if not for the explanatory sentence included in the Royal Exhibition catalogue and in the inscription on the original frame’s plaque: “One of the Magi, from the terrace of his house, stands looking at the star in the East. The lower part of the picture indicates a revel, which he may be supposed to have just left.” Leighton chose to paint what he described as a “long and narrow” composition of a “somewhat fanciful” subject. With crown in hand, the king appears to have left behind the worldly pleasures of his palace (illustrated by the musicians and dancers in the painting’s lower register), as the starlight beckons him onto a spiritual journey. The disproportionate duality between the two realms and the radiant light emanating from the star give the painting a magical appeal.