The visit of the Magi to the Christ Child is recounted in Matthew 2:1-12 (at right). Both the event and the feast day are called Epiphany. Sometimes artists will merge the Magi's visit into a Nativity image, in the manner of modern-day crèches, but on this page we will be looking at the more common iconography that treats it as a separate event. This iconography closely tracks the commentaries on Matthew 2. Ideas that are repeated from century to century in the commentaries correspond to repeated motifs in the art, and new insights lead to new ways of portraying the scene.
THE EPIPHANY IN PALEO-CHRISTIAN ARTThe oldest known Epiphany image, on an arch in the 3rd-century Catacomb of Priscilla, shows three men approaching Mary and the child. The men are arranged in a horizontal line and hold their gifts in hands extended toward the pair. They bow slightly forward, an adaptation of Matthew 2:11, "falling down they adored him." This iconography becomes the pattern for a large number of sarcophagus reliefs in the following century, such as Figure 1: The reason the Magi appear so often in the early art may be that their visit demonstrates the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecies, something emphasized again and again by early Christian writers who saw in the star and the journeyers a fulfillment of Balaam's words in Numbers 24:17, "A star shall rise out of Jacob and a sceptre shall spring up from Israel," and of Isaiah 60:6, "The multitude of camels shall cover thee [Jerusalem], the dromedaries of Madian and Epha: all they from Saba shall come, bringing gold and frankincense."1 Accordingly, all the reliefs have the Magi holding their gifts out toward the child, some have the star or a disk at the upper edge, and most have camels in the background. This example also includes a fourth man, a prophet who may be Balaam.
The Magi in these reliefs are dressed to emphasize their "otherness." They wear their tunics over trousers, which Romans considered barbarous. Their Phrygian caps signify Eastern origin and were customarily given to slaves upon manumission. This is because early Christian writers saw them as tainted figures whose taint God had put to use. Thus Chrysostom says, "Let the Jews…be ashamed, seeing themselves anticipated by barbarians and magi, whilst they submit not so much as to come after them."2 Peter Chrysologus explains their "crime" of seeking God through heathen arts as due to their ignorance.3 And Augustine says:
Jesus did not manifest himself to the learned, nor to the righteous. Rather he revealed himself as the cornerstone to the rustic ignorance of shepherds and the impious sacrileges of Magi. He chose the foolish in order to confound the wise, and called not the righteous but sinners, so that the strong would not boast nor the weak despair.4Matthew does not say how many Magi came from the East, and in the first two centuries there were various guesses.5 But the images consistently present three.
THE MAGI AS PHILOSOPHERS AND KINGSAfter Augustine commentators and images began to cast the Magi in a new light. In the 9th century Rabanus Maurus wrote, "the common speech represent[ed] them as magicians, evildoers; but they were esteemed otherwise by their own people, for they were the philosophers of the Chaldees."6 In the 12th, Peter Comestor concurred with a bit of etymologizing: "They were called Magi for the magnitude of their learning, for those whom the Greeks would term 'philosophers' the Persians called 'magi.'"7
This re-imagining of the Magi is already visible in the Epiphany segment of the 5th-century triumphal arch at Santa Maria Maggiore: Basically the Magi are still dressed as in their 4th-century images, but the trousers have become neat pants, the caps have a jaunty lift, and the tunics and mantles are nothing less than splendid. Nor do the men bend forward: the one on the left raises his right arm in confident salutation while the others listen. The mosaic in Figure 2, from the 6th century, also gives the Magi's clothing a jewel-like splendor. They are individualized by names inscribed along the top edge, and each is at a different stage of life: the eldest first in a gray beard, the youngest next with no beard, and the middle-aged man last with a black beard. The gifts are also clearly distinguished: the bowl of gold is first; next is a "boat" like those used in the liturgy for incense; and finally a spice jar for the myrrh.
By the 12th century the Magi are being called kings (Glossa Ordinaria, V, 59). This was always implicit in the commentators' use of a verse from the Psalms that was taken to prophesy their travel to Bethlehem: "The kings of Tharsis and the islands shall offer presents: the kings of the Arabians and of Saba shall bring gifts" (Psalm 71:10). By 1180 the great bronze doors of Milan Cathedral have them on horseback in rich, swirly garments and round things on their heads that could be crowns.
In this era the three figures no longer appear lined up as if in a queue but following the style of the time fit into the architectural shapes assigned to them, as we see from examples at Gard and Vézelay.
THE MAGI AS MANKINDFrom earliest times through today the exegetes have seen in the Magi God's call to all the Gentiles.8 The inscription in a mosaic of the Epiphany in Santa Maria in Trastevere declares, "With the star as guide, the unknown child becomes known to the Gentiles." Especially from the 13th century onward, their universality is also signified by their representing the three ages of Man (example). Another way of getting at the universality of the "three kings" was to make them represent the three races of mankind that were sired by Noah's three sons. The Glossa Ordinaria made precisely this point9, and the artists followed suit. The first example I know of is the 12th-century sculpture group in Figure 3, but it is only in the 15th century that it becomes common for the images to include an African. Many are like Figure 3 in that the African looks rather like a European with black skin; but the physiognomy grows more accurate in later portraits, which often layer the "sons of Noah" concept over the "three ages of Man" (example from the 16th century).
Apparently, not every artist bought entirely into the idea of Gentiles showing up in Christian story. In one playful image from the time of Mehmed II's conquests in Europe, St. Joseph and a white bystander register suspicion about the Arab and African magi, who have brought with them a huge Moslem flag.
THE MAGI'S TRAVELSIn Matthew the Magi tell Herod only that "we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him." But the Golden Legend recounts an elaborate backstory for the three men, and late medieval art follows suit with elaborate images of their story and their travels. According to the story, for centuries a society of wise men had been gathering once a month on "Mount Victoriale" hoping for the fulfillment of Balaam's prophecy. They would bathe in the waters there and pray for three days. On the day of Jesus' birth a star appeared to them in the shape of a beautiful child who told them to travel to Judah to meet "the newborn king." This event is pictured in two important late-medieval pieces, the Weyden Nativity Polyptych and the tapestry known as Christ is Born as Man's Redeemer. Starting in this period we see more and more images like Figure 4 that trace the Magi's travels to Bethlehem from the mountain and/or from Jerusalem. This relief uses a similar pattern in the upper register but applies it to the Magi's retinue waiting while their masters visit the child.
Sometimes the retinue can be quite extensive, as in this painting, which also introduces women, rich and poor contemporary visitors, and even a Native American.
JESUS, MARY AND JOSEPHIn all but one of the scores of Epiphany images I have examined, the child sits or stands on Mary's lap. In Luke he is "laid in a manger," but John Chrysostom says, "afterwards she took him up and held him on her knees."10 There has always been considerable variation in his dress. In the early works he may be swaddled (example) or more often in a sleeved tunic (Figure 1). Before the High Middle Ages he may be dressed as a regal figure (Figures 2 and 3). After that he may be covered only by a bit of cloth (Figure 4) or by nothing at all, as in Figure 5. Until the 14th century he is consistently pictured as a boy well past infancy, even though Matthew 2:1 implies that the Magi arrived soon after he was born. The Golden Legend says he was 13 days old at the time.
In the 4th-century reliefs Mary sits on a throne-like chair constructed of either stone, as in Figure 1, or plaited wood (example). Invariably her head is partly covered by her palla, as it will be in most images even till today. In the 12th century the images begin to give her a crown (see Figure 3), and this device continues into the 13th (example). But the crown never entirely displaces the palla in Epiphany images, and as we move into the more sentimental style of the High Middle Ages, it falls out of favor. Similarly, many images in the new style also suppress the throne-like chair. Mary will still be seated, but the folds of her garments will hide whatever she may be sitting on, as in Figure 5.
Joseph is a key figure in Matthew 1-2, yet he is not mentioned in the part about the Magi. Thus he is almost never seen in Epiphany images before the 12th century, and I say "almost" only because of one figure in an unusual Epiphany image from the 5th century. After the 12th century he becomes a fairly common figure in Epiphany images, usually standing behind Mary with one of the gifts or his staff (example).
THE GIFTSIn the 4th-century sarcophagi the first gift is usually a wreath (example), perhaps in anticipation of Christ's victory over death, but eventually the images become quite specific in following Matthew 2:11's gold, frankincense, and myrrh. In images such as figure 5, the gold is pictured as coins in a box or bowl, the frankincense is in a horn, and the myrrh in a covered goblet. Usually the oldest mage is first to offer. With his crown set aside on the floor or on his forearm, he kneels and in some cases kisses the baby's toe (example). The latter detail probably comes from the Book of the Infancy of the Savior, ¶ 92: "Each one in turn kissing the soles of the child's feet."
Prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-11-13.
FROM THE BYZANTINE GUIDE TO PAINTING (14th or 15th century, in Didron, II, 300) — Adoration of the Magi A house. The holy Virgin seated, holding the infant Christ, who blesses. Before her, the Magi present their gifts in golden shrines. One of the kings, an old man with a great beard, and head uncovered, kneels, and gazes on the Christ; with one hand he proffers Him his gift, and, with the other holds his crown. The second king has very little beard, the third none at all. They look at one another and point to Christ. Joseph stands in wonder behind the holy Virgin. Outside the grotto, a youth holds the three horses by the bridle. In the background, the three Magi are again seen returning to their country; an angel goes before to show the way.
MATTHEW 2:1-12 — When Jesus therefore was born in Bethlehem of Juda, in the days of king Herod, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem. 2Saying, Where is he that is born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to adore him. 3And king Herod hearing this, was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. 4And assembling together all the chief priests and the scribes of the people, he inquired of them where Christ should be born. 5But they said to him: In Bethlehem of Juda. For so it is written by the prophet: 6And thou Bethlehem the land of Juda art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come forth the captain that shall rule my people Israel. 7Then Herod, privately calling the wise men, learned diligently of them the time of the star which appeared to them; 8And sending them into Bethlehem, said: Go and diligently inquire after the child, and when you have found him, bring me word again, that I also may come to adore him. 9Who having heard the king, went their way; and behold the star which they had seen in the east, went before them, until it came and stood over where the child was. 10And seeing the star they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. 11And entering into the house, they found the child with Mary his mother, and falling down they adored him; and opening their treasures, they offered him gifts; gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having received an answer in sleep that they should not return to Herod, they went back another way into their country.