The Magi in Art and Literature
Robin M. Jensen • 12/23/2012
Joseph, Mary and the three magi gaze at the newborn babe in Italian artist Andrea Mantegna’s “Adoration of the Magi” (c. 1500). The magi proffer precious gifts: a fine Chinese porcelain bowl filled with gold coins; a censer (for frankincense) made of Turkish tambac ware (an alloy of copper); and a green agate vessel, presumably filled with myrrh. Collection: The J. Paul Getty Museum
The magi lend an exotic and mysterious air to the Christmas story. The sweet domesticity of mother and child and the bucolic atmosphere of shepherds and stable are disturbed by the arrival of these strangers from the East. The background music changes from major to minor. Sentiment gives way to awe, perhaps even fear.
Nevertheless, or perhaps because of this, the legend of the magi has fired the imagination of Christians since the earliest times. In art, the adoration of the magi appeared earlier and far more frequently than any other scene of Jesus’ birth and infancy, including images of the babe in a manger. The artistic evidence suggests that the early church attributed great theological importance to the story of Jesus’ first visitors—an importance not overtly stated in this enigmatic gospel account of omens and dreams, astrological signs and precious gifts, fear and flight. To understand how the earliest Christians interpreted the message of the magi, we must look to early Christian literature (theological treatises, sermons and poetry)—and art.
“In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi from the East came to Jerusalem asking: “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we have observed his star at its rising and have come to pay him homage.”
So opens the second chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, the only biblical account of this nocturnal visit. In vivid contrast to Luke’s gospel,a Matthew omits any mention of Mary and Joseph’s trip to Bethlehem to be registered, a crowded inn, a sheltering manger, or watching shepherds startled by an angel’s announcement of the messiah’s birth. Instead, the first gospel focuses on the journey of these eastern emissaries, who see an unusual star rising, interpret it as an omen that they should investigate, and follow its path first to King Herod of Judea and then to Bethlehem, where it appears to stop above a house in which a child had recently been born. Entering the house, the men pay homage to the babe and offer him gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Then they leave, having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, who has hatched an evil plot that will lead to the slaughter of innocent children, the weeping of their mothers.
|Three shadowy figures (shown here, compare with photo of the Catacomb of Priscilla) approach the Virgin and child, seated at right. Dating to the mid-third century C.E., this fresco from the Catacomb of Priscilla is the earliest known image of the magi, which later became the most common scene of Jesus’ birth and childhood in early Christian art. Photos by Scala/Art Resource||As shown in this photo, the painting appears above an arch in the oldest section of the catacomb, the Capella Graeca, which is lined with benches—perhaps for ancient funerary meals. Photos by Scala/Art Resource, NY|
The earliest extant portrayal (see photo of fresco from the Catacomb of Priscilla) of the magi, dated to the mid-third century, appears above an arch in the Catacomb of Priscilla, in Rome.1 As in almost all the early images of the magi, they are shown as three men, identical in size, dress (although the color of their clothing varies in the catacomb painting) and race. Each carries a gift. It is difficult to discern the presents in the faded catacomb painting, but usually in art one of them carries a wreath and the others a bowl, jug or box-shaped object. The magi advance in a line toward the child seated on his mother’s lap. In many early images, they appear to point or gaze at a star overhead. Sometimes their camels appear behind them, as in a fourth-century sarcophagus relief in the Vatican Museums (see photo of fourth-century sarcophagus). The early images almost always appear in funerary settings—on catacomb walls and sarcophagi. The magi scene is among the first narrative images to appear in Christian art, and predates most other New Testament scenes as well as any other representation of Jesus’ nativity (a unique fresco [not shown] of Balaam and the Virgin with child in the Catacomb of Priscilla may be the exception). The complex composition and emphasis on narrative detail provide further evidence of the import the story held.
Angels flank the enthroned Mary and Jesus in this sixth-century mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. The magi, followed by wreath-carrying female martyrs, press toward them. The names of the magi do not appear in the New Testament, nor does the number. The Gospel of Matthew speaks simply of “magi from the East.” By the second century, they were identified as three; by the fifth, they were identified as kings and, in the West, given the names Balthassar, Melchior and Gaspar, which appear above the magi (perhaps as a late addition) in this mosaic. Here, Balthassar is shown with a long brown beard. Melchior is a clean-shaven youth. Gaspar has long gray hair; over time, he would become the balding man who kneels before the babe in countless Renaissance images. Scala/Art Resource, NY
By the fifth century, Christian art had spread from catacombs and sarcophagi to vast public spaces, and the magi began to appear in the mosaic decorations of the first great basilicas. These mosaics share the same basic composition seen in earlier funerary art. In a sixth-century mosaic (above) from the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, in Ravenna, Italy, for example, the magi appear as extravagantly dressed triplets, bearing their gifts in fluted vessels as they press forward, gazing up at the star.b Before them, the baby Jesus is seated on Mary’s lap, flanked by angels.
The magi of the Ravenna mosaic may be distinguished only by their hair (one has long brown hair and a beard; one is a clean-shaven youth; the third is an elderly man, his hair greying) and their names (most likely a later addition), which are inscribed above them: Balthassar, Melchior and Gaspar (often spelled Caspar).
Neither their names, their number (three), their physical descriptions nor the date of the magi’s arrival appears in the Bible. Over time these cherished traditions were added to the brief gospel narrative, probably first through oral tradition. By the fourth century, the magi’s arrival was celebrated as the Feast of Epiphany on January 6 (12 days after Jesus’ birth on December 25).2 (Even today, in some parts of the Christian world, January 6, rather than December 25, is a time for exchanging presents, in commemoration of the gifts of the magi.)
Their assumed number was undoubtedly derived from the three gifts presented to Jesus in Matthew. The number wasn’t always taken for granted, however. A wall painting in the Roman catacomb of Domitilla shows four magi; one in the catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus depicts two. A variety of Syrian documents name twelve.3
The names and nationalities of the magi also varied throughout the world, especially in the East.4 An Armenian infancy gospelc from about 500 lists them as Melkon, King of Persia; Gaspar, King of India; and Baldassar, King of Arabia—and is thus closest to the Melchior, Caspar (or Gaspar) and Balthassar of the medieval Latin church.
As this Armenian infancy gospel indicates, the “magi,” a Greek term that might be taken as “sages” or “astrologers” (perhaps even “priests”), had come to be identified with royalty. In 490, the Byzantine emperor Zeno claimed to discover the remains of these “kings” somewhere in Persia and brought them to Constantinople. The relics eventually reached the West during the Crusades—first traveling to Milan and then subsequently to Cologne by Frederick Barbarossa in 1164. Today, they reside in Cologne, in a magnificent reliquary shrine built for them in the late 12th century. There they are known to pilgrims and tourists as the “Three Kings of Cologne.”5
It took centuries for these traditions to develop, however. In one of the earliest extrabiblical accounts of their journey, the apocryphal infancy gospel known as the Protevangelium of James, the magi remain unnamed and unnumbered.d This text, which was probably composed in Syria in about the mid-second century, only expands slightly on Matthew by describing the place where Jesus was born as a cave, rather than a house. (This detail will be familiar to modern pilgrims to Bethlehem who have been ushered into the small cave beneath the Church of the Nativity, where tradition locates Jesus’ birth.) The Protevangelium also elaborates on the appearance of the star: The magi tell Herod that all the other stars dimmed in comparison.6
The early church fathers interpreted the magi story in light of Old Testament prophecy. Christians understood the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (the Septuagint) to be a sacred text that contained types and figures pointing to the coming of Jesus as Messiah.
Justin Martyr (died c. 165), in his dialogue with a Jew named Trypho, interprets the magi as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy regarding the coming of the messiah. Justin cites Isaiah 8:4, where the prophet predicts that “before the child knows how to call ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the spoils of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria.” For Justin, the magi were priests of an eastern cult and practitioners of magic and astrology. The wealth of Damascus and spoils of Samaria represented the sorcery and idol-worship that the pagan magi gave up when they worshiped Jesus. The magi’s visit to the crib was thus their moment of conversion and the renunciation of their misguided, idolatrous practices. And so Justin reads Matthew’s story as a sign to the world that Christianity was the true and pure faith.7
|The fresco shown here depicts the three youths who refused to worship an idol in the Persian court (Daniel 3). They were thrown into a fiery furnace, where they were saved only by invoking the name of the Israelite God. In this painting, a Persian official stands to their right, pointing at the idol, which is shown as an imperial bust. Photo by Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra||In this fresco, the three magi appear almost identical to the three youths. These fourth-century paintings appear together in the Catacomb of Marcus and Marcellianus in Rome. According to the second-century church father Justin Martyr, the magi were pagan sorcerers and astrologers from the East. When they saw the babe, they renounced their pagan ways. Like the three youths, they recognized the true God and refused to commit idolatry. Photo by Pontificia Commissione di Archeologia Sacra|