John Heaton (jheaton) wrote,
John Heaton

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Advent Art: Adoration of the Magi

Artist unknown (English, 15th century)
Adoration of the Magi, late 15th century
Alabaster, polychrome and gilding
Adoration of the Magi
Art Institute of Chicago

Ah, the Magi, such a baffling part of the Nativity story. Who were they? Where did they come from? When did they arrive? How many of them were there? Did they teach Jesus king fu? None of these questions are answered in the Bible, at least not definitively.

  • The Greek text of Matthew calls them magi, which is derived from a Persian term for the priestly caste of Zoroastrianism. In Matthew, it's usually translated as "wise men," but the same term is translated as "sorcerer" in Acts.
  • Many people think of them as having been kings, due to a passage in Isaiah that says the Messiah would be worshiped by kings, but this interpretation is disputed by others.
  • Matthew doesn't say how many there were, but many people assume that since they presented Jesus with three gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh), there must have been three of them.
  • Around the 5th or 6th century, they picked up the names Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar.
  • Early on, the Magi were assumed to be from Persia or thereabouts and were usually depicted in art wearng Persian garb. Crowns started appearing on their heads starting around the 10th century. From the 12th century on, they were usually just dressed in ornate robes, though sometimes their dress and facial features was made to correspond with the three regions of the known world; usually, Melchior was European, Balthasar African, and Gaspar Asian.
  • Depending on how you interpret the Gospel of Matthew, they either arrived on the night of Jesus's birth or up to two years later.
  • Yes, in the years between Jesus's childhood and the start of his public ministry, Gaspar taught Jesus kung fu.

That last one is recorded in the book Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore, which is the definitive work on the adolescent and young adult life of Jesus.

On an unrelated topic, I have to give props to the Art Institute of Chicago, which has really improved its online collection since 2007, the last time I went looking for Advent art. Back then, most of the items they had online were only available as thumbnails. Now, almost everything has a large version as well.

Previous Advent posts:

2004: The Three Kings
2005: A Merry Christmas
2006: All Is Calm, All Is Bright
2007: Who are these who ride by starlight
2008: Madonna and Child
2009: Chanticleer
2010: We Three Camels

Tags: advent: 2010, art: sculpture

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