17 December 2008

Global Seminars & Invited Speaker Series


The Three Kings are coming! History, legend and art around the Magi from the East

Mr. José Javier Azanza López.
Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art

One of the most successful episodes in the history of art has been that of the Adoration of the Magi, a circumstance that may seem paradoxical a priori if we consider the scarce historical data we have of these fascinating and evanescent characters; It is not in vain that the account of Saint Matthew, the only one of the four canonical Gospels to record the extraordinary event, is extremely scant in details about these mysterious visitors, in whom the apocryphal Gospels, responsible for filling in the literalness of the events, soon showed an interest. 

Establishing an iconography of the Magi requires us to delve deeper into their theological, historical and legendary reality. Beginning with their identity, it is most likely that they were priests and astrologers originally from Babylon or Persia, given that both were great astrological centres where the magi were a highly influential priestly caste. They acquired the status of "Kings" at the beginning of the 3rd century, when Tertullian states that they were of royal lineage based on a psalm in the Bible. As for their issue, although there are versions that mention between two and sixty Magi, in the 3rd century the theologian Origen indicated that the Magi were three, issue which eventually prevailed for biblical, liturgical and symbolic reasons, and which was confirmed by the Church in the 5th century through a declaration by Pope Leo I the Great in his Sermons for Epiphany. The names of Melchior, Gaspar and Balthasar first appeared in the Armenian Gospel of the Infancy of the Infancy; but they were not definitively accepted until their inclusion in the Liber Pontificalis of Ravenna, dated to the middle of the 9th century.

At the dawn of Christianity, the three magi were depicted as being of the same race, had the same subject and were dressed in the characteristic Persian costume: Phrygian bonnet and narrow trousers with a skirt. However, from the 12th century onwards, in order to symbolise the universality of Christianity, they were differentiated and individualised, each one acquiring his own features that associate him with the three ages of life and the three parts of the world then known: Europe, Asia and Africa. At what point does the black king appear in Christian art? Although some isolated antecedents can be considered, the Age average ignores this reference letter conditioned by the rejection of the colour black, which was considered to be that of the devil and hell. The figure of the black king only became commonplace at the end of the Middle Ages average, and was imposed throughout the 15th century, both because of the growing taste for the exotic and for the symbolic reasons mentioned above. Regarding the meaning of their offerings, without ignoring the very high economic value they had at the time, there are various interpretations, from those of a more theological and transcendental scope that maintain that the Magi presented gold for the king, frankincense for the God and myrrh for man, to others that are more prosaic but no less feasible, such as that given in the 12th century by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who states that the gold was intended to help the Virgin's poverty, the incense to remove the bad smell from the stable, and the myrrh to deworm the Child, ridding him of insects and worms.

Copy of Benozzo Gozzoli's "Journey of the Magi".

Copy of "Journey of the Magi", by Benozzo Gozzoli. Enamel, 16th century. Parish Church of San Saturnino, Pamplona

Once the origin, issue, name, appearance and offerings of the Magi have been established, organising a narrative cycle is relatively simple, since the Gospel account points to each of the episodes. The first is the appearance to the Magi of the miraculous star that announces the birth of the Messiah, a scene that emphasises the extraordinary character of the new star that shines in the firmament more brightly than the sun, perhaps to reinforce the wisdom and the knowledge that the Magi as astrologers possessed of the Universe. Next comes the journey or ride of the Magi, guided by the star and on camelback or horseback, from agreement with a more or less pronounced taste for oriental exoticism. The third of the episodes of the Epiphany cycle is the visit of the Magi to King Herod, which is not lacking in medieval art, with Herod characterised as a sovereign of the time, with his attributes of power: seated on his throne, with crown and sceptre or sword.

The Magi and Herod. Façade of the parish church of Santa María de Olite

The Magi and Herod. Doorway of the parish church of Santa María de Olite, 13th century.

Interview of the Magi with Herod. Cloister of San Pedro de la Rúa of Estella

Interview of the Magi with Herod. Cloister of San Pedro de la Rúa in Estella, ca. 1170.

The central scene of the cycle corresponds to the Adoration of the Child. The extraordinary abundance of representations allows us to establish a series of formulas used in the different periods of the history of art, in which there are variations in the composition, characters and attitudes. In addition to the Magi, the main characters are the Virgin, who almost always appears seated, and the Child, who is seated on his mother's lap and not in the manger, as the shepherds found him: the humble are sample humble, the powerful on their throne of wisdom. More problematic is the presence of Saint Joseph, since Matthew does not allude to the Patriarch at the time of the Adoration of the Magi. Nevertheless, from the 12th century onwards, St Joseph is a regular part of the scene, although he almost always occupies a discreet background, pensive, contemplating the Mother and Child and seemingly oblivious to the event that is taking place. On other occasions, however, he is involved in the scene in various ways. Often he is in charge of the household chores: he lights the fire, cooks the baby food, and even puts the nappies on the fire to dry. His figure as the father of the family busy with the household chores must have been very popular in the staging of the Christmas "mysteries".

Juan de Bustamante, "Adoration of the Magi".

Juan de Bustamante, "Adoration of the Magi", ca. 1535. Parish Church of San Juan Evangelista de Huarte

Rolán de Mois, "Epiphany".

Rolán de Mois, "Epiphany", 1590. Main altarpiece of Fitero

The cycle continues with the scene of the Magi warned in a dream by an angel. The usual iconography depicts them lying down, wearing crowns to acknowledge the condition of sleepers, with an angel leaning over them to make them change pathway. Finally, the return by land, on the back of horses or camels, was eliminated very early on because it was confused with the ride to Bethlehem. It was replaced by the return to Tarsus by boat, as recounted by Santiago de la Vorágine in the Golden Legend. The return of the Magi marks the end of what has been called the "first pilgrimage of Christianity". This pilgrimage of the three Wise Men in which, from late antiquity, through the average Age and practically up to the present day, man's journey in search of God's knowledge has been depicted.