We Three : Legend, Symbol and Faith

The Magi

4th century Sarcophagus, Vatican

4th century Sarcophagus, Vatican

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 Adoration of the Magi St. Apollinaire Ravenna 6Th century

The Adoration of the Magi
St. Apollinaire
Ravenna
6Th century

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.)

Fra Filippo Lippi Adoration of the Christ Child, late 1450s. Panel, 50” high

Fra Filippo Lippi
Adoration of the Christ Child, late 1450s. Panel, 50” high

While an expression of faith this Journey of the Kings is a geography of power, politics and exotica.

GOZZOLI, Benozzo  Procession of the Magi   1459-60

GOZZOLI, Benozzo ,The Young King
Procession of the Magi
1459-60

The Middle King GOZZOLI, Benozzo  Procession of the Magi   1459-60

The Middle King
GOZZOLI, Benozzo
Procession of the Magi
1459-60

GOZZOLI, Benozzo The Old King   1459-60

GOZZOLI, Benozzo
The Old King
1459-60

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…

BOUTS, Dieric the Elder Adoration of the Magi c. 1445  Oil on wood, 80 x 56 cm  Museo del Prado, Madrid

BOUTS, Dieric the Elder
Adoration of the Magi
c. 1445
Oil on wood, 80 x 56 cm
Museo del Prado, Madrid

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.

GENTILE DA FABRIANO  Adoration of the Magi  1423  Tempera on wood, 300 x 282 cm  Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

GENTILE DA FABRIANO
Adoration of the Magi
1423
Tempera on wood, 300 x 282 cm
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence

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.

Jon Gossart The Adoration of the Kings 1500-15  Oil on wood, 177 x 162 cm  National Gallery, London

Jon Gossart
The Adoration of the Kings
1500-15
Oil on wood, 177 x 162 cm
National Gallery, London

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.

GOES, Hugo van der  Monforte Altarpiece  c. 1470  Oil on wood, 150 x 247 cm  Staatliche Museen, Berlin

GOES, Hugo van der
Monforte Altarpiece
c. 1470
Oil on wood, 150 x 247 cm
Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Another beautiful example of the three ages of the Magi is found on the façade of the Cathedral at Orvieto.

Adoration of the magi Orvieto Cathedral: the low reliefs- Lorenzo Maitani  1310-1330 CE

Adoration of the magi
Orvieto Cathedral: the low reliefs-
Lorenzo Maitani
1310-1330

Two Shrines

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.

Nicholas of Verdun (1130–1205) Cologne Cathedral Shrine of the Magi 1200

Nicholas of Verdun (1130–1205)
Cologne Cathedral
Shrine of the Magi
1200

Milan

Tomb of the Magi, Milan @MRL

Basilica of St. Eustorgio Tomb of the Magi, Milan
@MRL

 

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About Monsignor Mark Richard Lane

I am a Catholic Priest of the Diocese of Richmond. I am also a presenter in the Theology and Symbolism in Art from the art of the catacombs to modern art. My current research is on the duplicity of art in 19th Century America.
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