Depicting the Magi: origins, gifts and representing men of colour

Gerard David, Adoration of the Kings, National Gallery, London, 1515–1523

This essay will attempt to unravel the myth and the iconography behind the proliferation of the story of the adoration of the magi from its Eastern and pagan roots to its current Christian interpretation.  To aid my examination of this story, and to trace the changes in iconography and depictions of the kings themselves, I shall be illustrating it with a variety references to the story as depicted in examples from the Art UK website.  The essay will begin by looking at the etymology behind the term ‘magi’ and how it has come down to us and what is now means in contemporary society.  This essay will then look at the changing iconography behind the depictions of the story and the various meanings behind these changes in its iconography, not to mention the changes in the story of the adoration of the magi itself.  Moving on the essay will then look briefly at the origin of the names of the magi and the significance of their gifts to the Christ Child.  Following this exploration of the fundamental roots of the story I will then come to the issue of the inclusion of the black king, where he came from, why he would be included, how significant was he and how European artists tackled the problem of depicting this magus when they themselves had little or no knowledge of such people of colour.   Finally, I will examining the actual origins of the story and how much of a bearing does that story, as we understand it, have on the actual story written in the Bible.  To examine this final question, I will reproduce some parts of the biblical to help clarify the difference between those and the example images.  This final part of my essay will set out to ask what it is we want this story to mean and why do we hold on to the legendary story rather than biblical tale in our mostly Western secular society.

There have been pictorial representations of The Magi from as early as at least the 6th century, such as depictions in Byzantine ivories with origins in places such as Constantinople.  However, these depictions over this vast period of time have been anything but consistent.  However, let us deal with the consistencies first, and there are many.  The most obvious consistency is clearly the number of three magi/kings who are of course bring the gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh and the other consistency is the holy family upon which the entire story rests on.  However, there are some aspects of the many interpretations, that at first seem to be consistent and then on close examination of the images they turn out not be.  For example, many images of this story feature the Holy family in humble surroundings.  In Jacopo Bassano’s adoration of the 1560s (at the Barber Institute) we alight on a lean-to construction that seems to have been put together against the ruin of a classical building.  The Kings arrive with their retinue and pay homage to the new-born Christ Child.  Not for the first time in a scene like this we are shown the rear of an animal, which of course seems somewhat incongruous for such as moment as this.  But Bassano also echoes this foreshortening in the figure of the firs king presenting his gift prostrate of the ground, and that compositional line is repeated in the king resplendent in the pink robes.

In Gerard David’s c.1515 adoration (at the National Gallery) we alight on a ruin again, this time what looks to be a medieval castle, and in Sebastiano Ricci’s c.1726 adoration (at the Courtauld Institute) we return to a lean-to structure just visible in the upper left of the picture and what looks to be a Roman arch and thus a classical ruin, indeed Ricci repeats the classical motif in his adoration at Lamport Hall, this time with the presence of classical columns in the centre of the image.

These lean-to classical combinations that appear in so many images across the centuries, including Peter Paul Rubens adoration oil sketch of c.1633 at the Wallace, and Michelangelo di Pietro’s c.1500-10 adoration at the Courtauld Institute, that they cannot be merely coincidental.  The meaning of these lean-to’s and classical ruins seem to clearly point towards humility and the crumbling and of the old-world order; that being the Roman world represented by the classical ruins.  And thus, the new world order is represented as clearly triumphing over the old Roman world in the shape of the holy family.  But even this aspect that seems so much like a standard across adoration images is in itself inconsistent, because  other artists such as, Bartolome Esteban Murillo’s adoration of 1660-65 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, chooses not to use the iconography of classical ruins, but instead opts just for the humility of a cave with seemingly no sign of even a lean-to structure, and Zanobi Strozzi’s adoration of 1433-4 at the National Gallery also dispenses with the classical ruin, this time setting the scene in a humble put tighter shed-like structure.   However, what can be said to be consistent across centuries of depictions is are the splendid sumptuous clothes worn by the kings/magi.  If not resplendent in the decorative effects of their garments as we see in Zanobi Strozzi adoration, they are made with beautiful fabrics as we see in Jacopo Bassano’s adoration.  But much like the mythological story of the Judgement of Paris; where the three goddesses can be identified by iconography associated with each, so too are we set the task of identifying each of the Magi/kings.  According to legend they went by the names of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar.

Indeed, legend even tells us that there is an older king, the youngest king and of course a black king.  And in line customs of respect, the eldest king is always first to present his gift of gold and is often given the name of Caspar.  Thus, our artists familiar with the custom of the eldest king first use the iconography of grey hair, a beard or both to depict old age, this iconography of old age still holds today.  In the case of the youngest king, a lack of facial hair points towards youth, and this king is usually associated with the name Melchior and the gift of Frankincense.  However, youthfulness, as we can see in Lorenzo Monaco’s c.1405-10 Adoration at the Courtauld Institute, can sometimes lead to Melchior being mistaken for a woman or girl.  But as we have seen with the examples mentioned so far, our route to identifying the next king should be easy, because not only do we have the process of elimination, but also the third king, Balthasar is black.  However, as we can see from our examples this is also an inconsistency, because nobody has informed Lorenzo Monaco, or Zanobi Strozzi or Cosimo Rosselli in his adoration from about 1480 that such a person should be included.   Indeed, the only early 16th century artist in our examples that has received the memo is Gerard David in his 1515 adoration.  What can clearly be established at this point is that not every artist across the ages has been singing from the same song sheet, and this must be due in large part to the ambiguity of texts purporting to tell this story.

For example, one of the pieces of biblical text commonly associated with this story is Matthew 2, that text reads as follows:

…When they had heard the King, they departed; and lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it stood over where the young child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.  They presented unto him; gifts, gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

This text seems to set the scene that most of us are familiar with, because it ends with the iconic gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.  However, there is no mention of any crumbling ruins let alone lean-to structures, and the men in this passage are not referred to kings or indeed magi, and as for the origins of the wise men, we are informed only that they came from the east.  What part of the east that may be is not explained, we are not informed of just how many of them there are, they also have no names, and crucially there is no mention of a black magus of king.  Similarly, if we consider other biblical passages, such as Psalm 72, verse 10 we find ourselves even more bereft of information regarding these mysterious men:

The Kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents:

The kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts.

Yea, all the kings shall fall down before him:

All nations shall serve him.

And he shall live, and to him shall be given the gold of Sheba.

Yet by the 16th century we start to become aware of the concept of the three kings, representing one for each root race, including the idea of a black king.  Indeed, the element of difference in the form of a turbans can be seen across many of our examples clearly represent that European invention of the exotic.  Any figure that wears one of these is immediately transformed into the exotic, whether the character ever wore such an item in the supposed lands they came from.  Indeed, this shorthand piece of iconography has also been used to represent the so-called Sibyls that not only came from exotic places, but were also, like the Magi, of other faiths or as Christians would subsequently call them – pre-Christians. It is also more likely that one of the factors governing the inconsistency of the black king in depictions is the artist’s lack of knowledge of actual black people in mid to late 15th century Europe in that even when they are depicted, we are only given partial views, such as the Bassano adoration, the Sebastiano Ricci adorations and so on, thus avoiding the tricky rendition of a physiognomy the artist has no knowledge of, or in the case of the 1515 depiction by Gerard David, a European physiognomy with a darker shade.  Indeed, the European perspective on the black king would be given much credence by the writings of St. Augustine (354-430) who was the first alight on the already existing the idea of a black king, and thus in his opinion Ethiopians, as symbols of the universality of the Christian faith.

But however vague the texts are we have at least been given some locations other than just the east.  But the locations once given then give rise in our minds as to what are the beliefs of these men, and do all of these men even have the same beliefs?  Maybe the only thing we can be certain of at this stage is their beliefs can surely not be Christian.  Indeed, the idea of proscribing to these men the title of magi seems to have it origins in pagan or non-Christian religions indeed magi is the plural for the Greek word Magus and is a word that seems to have been in use from at least 4th century BC to describe what the Hellenistic world saw as followers of the even more ancient religion of Zoroastrianism.  These were men with the ability to interpret certain patterns in the stars and even manipulate the fate of individuals according to what the stars foretold.  Such followers were also described as magian or the more familiar word to us magician.  Among those who had misgivings, and perhaps misunderstandings regarding these mysterious men, the word magic or magician soon took on negative connotations.

Of course, nowadays we would call such people astrologers, conjurers or just plain tricksters, but significantly such people are still viewed with a great deal of suspicion and even damnation by the modern Church.  More significantly these men were said to have come from the East and perhaps it is this aspect of the story that lends itself to the idea of a black king being among their number.  These magi were said to be astrologers from the Persian court, making them both ‘Exotic and able to follow the biblical star to the place where they would eventually kneel before the Christ Child.   However, it was also said that the magi were priests belong to an ancient pre-Christian religion called to the cult of Mithras.  But further to this the use of the term magi as a term to describe kings in the context of these men stems from the idea that, not only these men were seen as equivalent to kings in their own countries, (in other words a way of giving Western European audiences a way of understanding their rank in the context of their own societies), but the two terms were to be seen as interchangeable in their usage.

But the idea that they were supposed to have come from distant lands and they were Kings more than likely came about via the writings of the Christian theologian Tertullian (c.160-230), who in the year 200 was the first to infer that magi in the distant lands were more or less seen to be the equivalent of kings by the people of their native lands.  It is then left to a 3rd Century theologian called Origen (d.254), who says there were three of them.  Although this is also not mentioned in the texts it seems reasonable to assume this as three gifts are mentioned:  Gold, representing a homage to Christ’s kingship, frankincense, representing a homage to Christ’s divinity, and myrrh, used in embalming, and thus representing a foreshadowing of Christ’s death.  The name, that are also not mentioned in texts are more than likely also an invention of Origen, although it must be said that their names did alternate between them for some period of time, until after much changing of names depending on which part of the globe you happen to come from, in Europe they finally settle by the 7th Century on the names Balthasar, Gaspar and Melchior.

In conclusion, it is clear from the disparity between the images and the word that the power of the image has triumphed in contemporary society, as it has done throughout the last two millennia of depictions of this story.  And in our contemporary secular society we are more likely to glean our information from pictures in art galleries or in my case play the part of one of the kings in the school play, than read the Bible. No prizes for guessing which Magus I played.

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