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Adoration of the Magi

gifts jesus art century

Matthew’s Gospel (2:1-12) tells the story of the “wise men”who came “from the east” after the birth of Jesus. Alerted by a star which had appeared in the sky, they journeyed to Jerusalem to pay homage to the “King of the Jews.” They consulted King *Herod, who sent them to Bethlehem where they discovered and presented gifts to the infant Jesus. Warned by *God in a dream not to return to Herod with confirmation of the child’s existence, they returned to their own country. Herod, threatened by the knowledge of a potentially powerful rival, subsequently ordered the slaughter of all children aged two years and younger in Bethlehem and the region , but the *Holy Family, warned by an *angel, had fled to Egypt


The Adoration of the Magi is one of the most important and frequently represented subjects in early Christian and medieval art. The event is celebrated, liturgically, with the feast of Epiphany (the acknowledged manifestation of God in Jesus), adopted by the late fourth century in both east and west. Although the Adoration of the Magi is linked, and often mingled in art, with scenes of the birth of Christ the magi themselves significantly represent the potential, universal acceptance of Christianity by all people.


In early Christian art, the “eastern” origin of the magi may be indicated by their depiction in the exotic dress of Persian astrologers or Mithraic priests, for example, short robes and the forward-folded Phrygian cap. The Gospel account does not state the exact number of magi, and so some scenes show two, four, six, or even twelve; however, the three gifts which are mentioned in the Gospel result in the traditional and most common representation of the magi as three. Tertullian described them as kings, but they are not customarily depicted with crowns until about the tenth century. In Romanesque and Gothic art, the “eastern” appearance of the magi may be indicated by their sumptuous and colorful garments, although their costume and crowns increasingly give them the appearance of European kings.


They may be shown riding on horseback, walking toward, kneeling in front of, or positioned around the seated or enthroned Mary and the baby Jesus. Joseph and an angel may be present; a star may hover over the scene. They offer their gifts to Jesus who may stretch out his hand in acceptance or with a Page 5  gesture of *benediction. The gifts may be shown as jeweled containers, bowls, a horn, a crown, or coins. Writers from at least the sixth century interpreted these gifts as symbols of Christ’s kingship and power (gold), his divine nature (frankincense), and his humanity/mortality (myrrh). Texts from the sixth century also give names to the magi (Melchior, Caspar, Balthasar), and these names appear as inscriptions in art from the late tenth century. The association of the magi with the ages of man and the three parts of the world dates to the later medieval period; hence the magi may range in age from youthful to elderly and Africa/Balthasar may be shown as a black man.


The subject of the Adoration of the Magi appears in early Christian catacomb painting and mosaics, on ivories and sarcophagi, in Byzantine and Ottonian manuscript illustration, and in sculpture, fresco, manuscripts, and stained glass through the Middle Ages. Related narrative scenes may show the magi speaking with Herod, the magi seeing the star, the journey of the magi, and their dream vision, where, especially in French Romanesque sculpture, they are charmingly rendered, crowned and sleeping under one cover in a single bed while the angel gestures to the star above them.

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