Wise men from the East

During this time between Christmas and Epiphany, the 12 Days of Christmas, my thoughts have landed on the visit of the wise men who arrive on Epiphany in just a few days. I have found and included some wonderful artistic examples which aid in telling this part of the Christmas story. Appearing only once in the story of Jesus’ birth, the wise men from the East made A Lasting Impression on Christians then and now. Many Christmas carols as well as paintings and tapestries make mention of the three kings, who follow a star and come to pay homage to the baby Jesus in Bethlehem. In the Bible, they are not called kings, and their number is not specified—instead they are “wise men from the East.”

Adoration of the Magi by Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris 1888

According to the Book of Matthew, a bright star led the magi from the east until it stopped “over the place where the child was,” and “upon entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother” (Matthew 1:24). The magi knelt down for the baby Jesus and “offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.” Over the centuries the tale of the ‘three wise men’ gained in stature, as well as importance and eventually they became ‘Three Kings’ and liturgical stars of the western Church from the seventh century onward.

The most famous representation of them is the ‘Mosaic of the the Tree Wise Men in Sant’Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna, Italy.

Mosaic of the Three Wise Men

The UNESCO World Cultural Heritage – the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo has some of the most impressive and interesting Late Antiquity and Byzantine mosaics. The magi and their gifts are rendered in this stunning mosaic from the early 6th century. As in common with Byzantine art, the wise men are seen wearing Persian clothing including breeches, capes and Phrygian caps.

King Herod had heard rumors of the birth of a new “king” and jealously sought out the baby. In the Book of Matthew, the magi stopped at Herod’s palace on their way to Bethlehem, and the king asked them to let him know where this newborn babe was, so that “I may also go and pay him homage.” But the magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, and so they left for their own country by another road” and were never heard from again (Matthew 2:12).

Biblical Magi stained glass window 1896, at Church of the Good Shepherd (Rosemont, Pennsylvania)

Later telling of the story identified the magi by name and identified their lands of origin: Melchior hailed from Persia, Gaspar (also called “Caspar” or “Jaspar”) from India, and Balthazar from Arabia. Works of art often, but not always, depict them they following way,

  • Gaspar (or Caspar), wears a green cloak and a gold crown with green jewels on it. He is the King of Sheba. Gaspar represents the Frankincense brought to Jesus.
  • Melchior, has long white hair and a white beard and wears a gold cloak. He is the King of Arabia. Melchior represents the Gold brought to Jesus.
  • Balthazar, has a black beard and wears a purple cloak. He is the King of Tarse and Egypt. Balthazar represents the gift of Myrrh that was brought to Jesus.

Their gifts had special symbolic meanings as well: gold signified Jesus’ status as “King of the Jews;” frankincense represented the infant’s divinity and identity as the Son of God; and myrrh touched upon Jesus’ mortality. 

Three Wise Men on Sagrada Familla by Gaudi in Barcelona, Spain

Popular depictions of Christmas seem to compress the nativity story, making it appear as though the three kings’ show up in Bethlehem on Christmas, but traditional celebrations place their visit 12 days after Christmas, which is called Epiphany, or Three Kings Day. This is the official commemoration of the arrival of the Magi and is one of Christianity’s oldest holidays. Roman Catholics celebrate Epiphany on January 6, and Orthodox Christian faiths celebrate on January 19.

Adoration of the Magi by Fra Angelico and Filippo Lippi 1450

I’m trying to imagine the procession of wise men along with all the other shepherds during those first days and weeks after the birth. Mary and Joseph must have been exhausted! Comparing the similarities and differences in how the artists have interpreted the clothing, the gifts, the landscape and the overall feeling or mood of the birth is so interesting. I hope to continue exploring the celebrations of the 12 days of Christmas, which are from December 25 through the evening of January 5th. For now it has been interesting to focus just on the wise men and their lasting impression on all of us.

The Adoration of the Magi – unfinished early painting by Leonardo da Vinci – Uffizi Gallery

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