Christ is Born as Man's Redeemer: Detail, Nativity and Magi

Photographed at the Cloisters by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license.

1500-1520
Wool and silk
The Cloisters, New York City

In the upper right of the tapestry we see the three Magi washing their feet in a ritual cleansing on Mount Victoriale, the latest successors in a line of kings that goes back to the days of Balaam's prophecy that "a star shall rise out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel" (Numbers 24:17). According to the Golden Legend, twelve of them have come to this place each month to cleanse themselves and pray that they might see the star. This time they do, and in the star they see the image of a baby and a cross. (In this tapestry, the baby is carrying the cross on his shoulder, as he will years later in the Passion.)

The Legend goes on to explain that the Magi stopped at Jerusalem (Matthew 2:1-8) because "in Jerusalem were the doctors and the wise men [sapientes legis et scribae in the Latin] by whom they might know where the said child was born." It is possible that the three men to the left of the scene on Mount Victorial are these "doctors and wise men." The museum label identifies them as prophets, and so they may be, especially if we take the figures on the far left and far right of the tapestry to be prophets. The latter carry scrolls with prophecies of Christ's birth, as prophets often do in Nativities. But both scrolls quote Isaiah, yet they are held by two quite different men. And it is odd that the two men and the three placed next to the Magi are all clean-shaven and wear sumptuous contemporary dress. Prophets usually have beards and wear simple archaizing garments.

Directly below the Magi and the three doctors is the kind of implausibly open rustic structure that one often sees in high and late medieval Nativities. As is also common from the mid-15th century into the 16th, the shepherds are on the far side of a low wall that is part of the structure, looking on the scene of Mary, Joseph, and the Child. These are in this case joined by angels on the left and three larger figures on the right, two of whom are labeled: Humility crowned as a queen and Chastity beside her. In the lower right corner an unlabeled figure in a crown holds a scroll with the phrase parvulus natus est nobis, "a child is born to us" (Isaiah 9:6).

The focal scene is typical of this era: Joseph holds a candle while Mary kneels to the Child, who lies naked on the ground and gives off a flood of light.

This image in full resolution
Here is the entire tapestry:

Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art

Other parts of this tapestry:
  1. Joseph and Mary Pay the Census Tax
  2. Mankind in Chains
  3. Christ Enthroned
  4. The Trinity and the Virgin Mary
  5. The Marriage of the Virgin

More of the Nativity
More of the Magi