In the earliest depictions, the Magi are shown wearing Persian dress of trousers and Phrygian Caps, usually in profile, advancing in step with their gifts held out before them.
The Magi Chapel
One of the most beautiful presentation of the Magi is found in a chapel in Palazzo Medici Riccardi of Florence, Italy. It includes a famous cycle of frescoes by the Renaissance master Benozzo Gozzoli, painted in 1459-1461.
Gozzoli’s Procession of the Magi moves toward Filippo Lippi’s altar painting of the Adoration of the Child. (The original which was replaced with a copy in 1494, is now in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin.)
While an expression of faith this Journey of the Kings is a geography of power, politics and exotica.
The Young King is an alleged portrait of Lorenzo il Magnifico.
Bearded Balthasar, the middle Magus, rides a white horse on the south wall. He is portrayed with the same facial features as Byzantine emperor John VIII Palaiologos. (It was once thought that the three pages behind him represented Piero’s daughters, but the faces of those young women are more likely to be amongst the rest of the Medici portraits.)
Melchior, the oldest Magi, rides on the west wall. Traditionally, his features have been read as those of Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople, who died in Florence during the Council (1438-1439) ; but they could also be those of Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor, who helped end the Great Schism by convoking the Council of Constance in 1414. Like Cosimo, he is shown as a peacemaker riding on a donkey. He is preceded by a page in blue with a leopard on his horse – although he leads the entire procession, no real world identity for this figure has ever been ascertained.
In this occasion the Medici could boast to have favored the reconciliation between the Catholic and the Byzantine churches. The luxury of the Byzantine dignitaries is manifest, and shows the impression they would have at the time on the Florentine population.
The Symbolism of the Magi
Most of us remain aware of the gold, frankincense and myrrh which allude to Christ as King, God and Man. But there is more…
The Three Kings
It was not until about 200 that Tertullian, a Carthaginian convert, and a Father of the Church called them Kings and this became common only after the 6th Century.
The Three Names
The first to say that there were three and to name them as Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar was Origen (d. 254) and those names became current in the sixth century.
From the 14th century onwards, large retinues are often shown, the gifts are contained in spectacular pieces of goldsmith work, and the Magi’s clothes are given increasing attention, as attested to by Gozzoli, Gossart and Botticelli.
The Three Continents/The Three Ages
Since the time of Origen, the number of Magi has been fixed at three because of the fact that they brought three gifts with them. From around the 12th century, and very often in Northern Europe from the 15th century the Three also have been seen to represent the three known parts of the world, as in the Van der Goes Altarpiece. Balthazar is very commonly cast as a young African or Moor, and old Caspar is given Oriental features or, more often, dress. Melchior represents Europe and middle age. The balding, kneeling man represents Europe. The bearded man with turban is from Asia, and the dark man represents Africa.
Another beautiful example of the three ages of the Magi is found on the façade of the Cathedral at Orvieto.
Being venerated as saints, the ‘relics’ of the Magi were said to have come from Constantinople to Milan, and from there they were taken by the Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa in 1162, and are now in the Cologne cathedral, in one of the grandest reliquaries by Nicholas of Verdun.