The Many Artworks for the Adoration of the Magi
Representations for the birth scene of the baby Jesus have been a sensation for centuries
The biblical story of the Adoration of the Magi began about two thousand years ago when it was included in the Book of Mathew. It would be hard to name a story depicted in art more than this one. Hundreds of painters, sculptors and other artists have created their version of this iconic tableau.
Let’s find out why this artistic representation has survived the centuries, becoming perhaps the most popular work of art in history. Please keep reading:
History of the Adoration of the Magi
Of the four canonical Gospels included in the Christian Bible, only Mathew 2 has anything to say about the three Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men from the East, and sometimes referred to as kings. The word Magi is an Old Persian word that means priests, particularly in astrology, considered a science two thousand years ago. Quite possibly the Magi were priests in Zoroastrianism, the primary religion of Persia before the coming of Islam in the seventh century.
The Magi came bearing gifts for the Christ child. These gifts have usually been referred to as gold, frankincense and myrrh. The Orthodox Church, commonly known as the Eastern Orthodox Church, commemorates the Adoration of the Magi on the Feast of the Nativity on December 25. The point of the commemoration is that Jesus Christ was recognized as the king of the earth from the time he was born.
Also, the Epiphany or “the appearance,” is celebrated on January 6. It celebrates the revelation of God to humankind in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Biblical Account
In the Christian Bible the relevant passage in Mathew 2, verses one and two, goes as follows:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
King Herod the first, also known as Herod the Great, ruled Judea at the time, though the Romans had ultimate control of the area. Herod, a great builder but also a tyrant, was not pleased when he heard of the birth of Jesus, King of the Jews. Herod considered himself King of the Jews, although the Jews certainly didn’t, because he had enforced Hellenistic culture upon them. In fact, according to Jewish law, Herod was not even Jewish.
When the Magi came through Jerusalem on their way to Bethlehem, Herod told the Magi he wanted them to spy on Jesus, a possible competitor to Herod’s kingdom. Then, as the story goes, the Magi then offered their gifts to the baby Jesus but, before they departed, God warned them in a dream to avoid Herod, so they returned home without visiting Jerusalem.
Betrayed by the Magi, Herod, a very paranoid fellow, had all children in Bethlehem under the age of three murdered. Having been warned of Herod’s plot by an angel, Joseph and Mary took Jesus and fled to Egypt.
What Was the Star of Bethlehem?
The Magi were supposedly guided to the birth site of Jesus by a great light or star in the sky. What was this celestial object? Many writers and scholars have tried to present a scientific explanation for the so-called Christmas Star. Some think it could have been an exploding star or supernova, but none were reported at the time and such stellar explosions leave remnants, none of which have ever been discovered dating from that time and place.
Could the Christmas Star have been a comet reported about 5 B.C.E.? Or could it have been a conjunction of the planets Jupiter and Saturn seen about 7 B.C.E.? Also keep in mind that nobody knows exactly when Jesus was born, so we may never know for certain the identity of this mysterious heavenly object.
The Adoration of the Magi in Art
This marvelous biblical story has inspired countless works of art. Beginning in the fourth century, representations of the Adoration of the Magi have become a tour de force in art that continues to this day. The first representations appeared in catacomb paintings and sarcophagus reliefs found throughout the Mediterranean region. By the tenth century, the Magi began to wears crowns, looking rather kingly, and overall their attire had lost its Middle Eastern look. Also, in this period, they began to be shown as the three ages of man.
Then, in the twelfth to fifteen centuries, the Magi were made to represent the three known parts of the world: Balthazar is cast as the young Moor or African; Caspar is given Asian features, while Melchior is supposed to be of European descent. From the fourteenth century onwards, the Magi have large retinues comprised of many animals and attendants and their gifts to Jesus are spectacular in nature; the attire of the Magi is now resplendent as well; and the manger scene is often replaced by a house, inn or castle.
By the fifteenth century, paintings of the scene have become large and magnificent, displaying the artist’s great skill with depictions of crowd scenes containing many people, animals and sumptuous objets de art. The paintings are sometimes done in triptychs, the two outer scenes or pendants contrasting with the middle Nativity.
None other than the great Leonardo da Vinci made a version of the Adoration of the Magi. Though unfinished, the piece has been in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence since 1670. Interestingly, the scene of the painting is set among pagan ruins and Leonardo has put a self-portrait of himself in the far right of the work. The ruins could represent the Basilica of Maxentius, signifying Christianity’s victory over the pagan world of the Romans, though the basilica hadn’t been built as yet during the time of Christ.
In later works, the Adoration of the Magi was depicted in stained glass at Christ Church in Pelham, New York in 1843 by William Jay Bolton. Bolton was the first artist in the United States to produce figural stained glass windows. And in 1996, Gottfried Helnwein created a modern black and white painting entitled Epiphany 1(Adoration of the Wise Men), the Nazi references of which might dismay some viewers.
From this point forward, the Adoration of the Magi may be shown in ways unimaginable in times past. Art lovers and people of faith may look forward to those days!
Please leave a comment.
Here are some links to other stories about art
- Was Marcel Duchamp the Anti-Artist?
This article highlights career accomplishments and provides plenty of background information on Marcel Duchamp, one of the most influential modern artists of the twentieth century.
- Which Modern Artist Is Better - Monet or Manet?
This article provides biographies for artists Claude Monet and Edouard Manet, two giants of French Impressionism. The article then compares the significance of each artist and asks the question: who is better Monet or Manet?
- Why Was Futurism Important?
This article summarizes the artistic movement known as Futurism and suggests its importance in early twentieth century modern art.
- You Can't Miss the Second Saturday Art Walk in Sacramento!
This article highlights the sights and sounds of the Second Saturday Artwalk in Sacramento, California. Also, the names of many local artists are mentioned and some information regarding specific Sacramento art galleries is offered as well.
- Andy Warhol Wanted to be Made of Plastic
This article provides an in-depth biography of artist Andy Warhol, including numerous anecdotes, facts and photos. The story also offers much information about the famous Factory crowd in the 1960s.
- Jackson Pollock Dripped His Way to Modern Art Stardom
This article provides an in-depth biography of painter Jackson Pollock. Included in this story are numerous quotations as well as photos of some of Pollock's greatest paintings.
- Arco Tung-Sol: Painter, Sculptor and Bon Vivant
This article provides a first-person biography of artist Arco Tung-Sol, who lived from 1937 to 2003 and produced numerous impressive works of art. Many photos of his artwork are offered as well.
- The Beguiling Photography of Henry Garciga
This article provides a first-person autobiography of photographer Henry Garciga. Included in the story are some of Garciga's best photos.