For the Solemnity of the Epiphany of the Lord
Hans-Joachim Kracht
'Three Kings' Seek, Find, and Worship the Lord

"We have come to worship him" (Mt 2:2) was the meaningful theme chosen for the 20th World Youth Day, celebrated in Cologne, Germany, from 16 to 21 August.

The story of the "Adoration of the Wise Men" is one of the best known in the life of the Lord. However, the episode recounted by the Evangelist Matthew is not primarily an exact historical chronicle. Rather, the focus of interest is the content, which concerns the history of salvation in the message passed on by this witness of faith.

This is why the story of the Three Kings has become a favourite subject in the theological expressions of art. The star that guided the Magi has become an example of the Gospel proclamation to all.

The brief account in Matthew's Gospel (2:1-12), which says that Wise Men from the East, guided by a star, arrived in Bethlehem to worship the newborn Child, was well-known from the Church's beginnings.

The Evangelist Luke tells of the simple local shepherds of Bethlehem who found Jesus lying in a manger.

Matthew, on the other hand, tells the story of Wise Men, people of high rank who arrive from the East, from afar, following a star. They have also been called "astrologers" ("μαγοι" in Greek), Magi kings and the "Three Kings".

Their coming from the "East" (Mt 2:1) makes one think of Persia, where the Parsee priests of Zoroaster encouraged the interpretation and deification of stars.

But according to Scripture (cf. Dt 2:2-10), the land they came from might well have been Babylon, Arabia or Syria. "Wise", therefore, is also a definition of the "foreigners" who had come from afar to worship the newborn Jesus.

Drawing inspiration from Psalm 72[71]: "The kings of Tarshish and the Isles shall offer gifts; the kings of Arabia and Seba shall bring tribute" (v. 10); and from Isaiah (60:6): "All from Sheba shall come bearing gold and frankincense, and proclaiming the praises of the Lord", popular tradition has transformed the three experts in astronomy into three kings of different ages and provenance.

There is no doubt that they were astrologers, because they followed a specific star. This star, like a "Pole star", a means of orientation, was transformed in subsequent interpretations to the point that it was even shown with Christ's monogramme, becoming the goal and the symbol of Christ himself.

The brightest star of all

In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius (who died in about 117) wrote: "A star shone forth in Heaven more brightly than all the stars, and its light was greater than words can tell, and its strange appearing caused perplexity. And all the other stars... formed themselves into a band about the star. But the star itself surpassed them all in its brightness".

The first scientist to study this constellation in this particular epoch was the German astronomer, Johannes Kepler (1571-1630).

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The Solemnity of the "Epiphany of the Lord" (birth, adoration of the Magi, Baptism in the Jordan, wedding at Cana), which originated in Alexandria, spread increasingly in the liturgy of the entire Church. It has been celebrated on 6 January since the fifth century. Only in the Roman liturgy under Pope St. Leo the Great (440-461) did it become a specific feast: the "Adoration of the Magi".

The definition of the Magi as three, a holy number, partly because of the kind of gifts they offered, also dates to this period. At first, their number or names were not specified. The names Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar probably crept into the Western Tradition from an apocryphal Gospel written in Alexandria in about the sixth century.

One thing, however, is certain. It was interest in the Magi of Matthew's narrative that formed the basis of their subsequent popular veneration. The Evangelist's account of them offers few historical details: instead, it is theological in nature.

The Wise Men symbolized strangers, foreigners or pagans, hence, completely diverse people. Yet they received salvation, just like the People of Israel. Their search, discovery, worship and belief in Jesus filled them with "great joy". Obedient to a warning, they returned to their own country "by another way".

The homage that the first representatives of paganism, henceforth kings, paid to the King of kings enabled them to share in the divine Kingdom of Jesus Christ. In late antiquity and in the early Middle Ages, the field of art provided a particularly fertile terrain for this concept.

Popularity of the legend

Tradition claims that the remains of the Magi were found in Jerusalem in the fourth century by the Empress Helena, who took them with her to Constantinople.

When St. Ambrose, after the year 375, became Bishop of Milan, the Empress presented to him these venerable relics. It is to Ambrose, who possessed an excellent theological formation, that we owe the fact that in theological circles the Epiphany has always met with the recognition it deserves:

"The Wise Men make a gift of their treasures. Do you want to know what an excellent honour they received? The star was visible only to them; where Herod lived it was invisible; where Jesus lay it once again became visible and pointed out the way. So it is that this star is also the way, Christ's way; for Christ, in the mystery of the Incarnation, is the star, because "a star shall come forth from Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel" (Nm 24:17). Therefore, wherever Christ is, the star is too, for he is 'the bright morning star' (Rv 22:16). With his light, then, he points to himself" (cf. St. Ambrose, Comment on Luke II, 45).

An ancient manual for painters, kept at Mount Athos, also describes the "Adoration of the Magi": "a house, and the Most Holy One [Mary, Mother of God], seated, holds Jesus, in the act of blessing, as a newborn child. Before her are the three Magi and they are carrying their gifts in small golden caskets. One of them is an elderly, bare-headed man, kneeling, with a long beard. His eyes are fixed on Christ. He holds his gift in one hand and in the other, his crown; the second of the Magi has a short beard, and the third is clean-shaven. They are looking at one another and pointing to Christ. And Joseph stands behind the Most Holy One, wrapped in wonder. Outside the house, a young man holds the bridles of their three horses. And the three Magi appear once again on a hill. They are seated on their mounts, homeward bound. An angel, before them, is showing them the way".

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Popular piety has preferred the legendary account of the "Adoration of the Magi", the scene so widely depicted in figurative art.

The new Martyrologium Romanum, however, is somewhat more precise. It says that the transferral of the remains of the Three Magi (trium magorum) took place on 13 July to Cologne.

"Certain Wise Men from the East arrived in Bethlehem bearing gifts, to contemplate in the Child the mystery of the magnificence of the Only-begotten One" (Martyrologium Romanum, Rome, 2004, p. 658, n. 13).

In Rome, famous and expressive portrayals of the Wise Men from the East existed well before the transferral of their remains from Milan to Cologne. It is only possible here to mention a few of these numerous, ancient "Roman" representations — about 100 exist.

From the third century, the "Adoration of the Magi" appeared in the catacombs, for example, those of Sts. Marcellinus and Peter, St. Priscilla or St. Domitilla. It also features in the sculpture on sarcophagi, such as the one from St. Paul Outside-the-Walls exhibited in the Lateran Museum.

'Adoration of the Magi'

The composition of the scene is often similar: the Mother of God is seated as the Queen of Heaven, or Queen and Mother, with the Child on her lap on one side of the image, usually on the right.

The Child stretches out one or both of his hands to the Magi, in Oriental dress, who are arriving from the opposite side. Their number sometimes differs; it varies from two to four. Whether symmetry or the lack of space are sufficient explanation for this remains doubtful.

The distinction between the presentation of the gifts, as a sign of sacrifice, and adoration, like prostration, is not always clearly distinguishable.

Arguably one of the greatest Western art treasurers is the proto-Christian panel cypress in the wooden door (5.35m. x 3.5m.) at the Church of Santa Sabina on the Aventine Hill in Rome. The carving on the door, made of cyprus or cedar around 432, clearly demonstrates a Byzantine influence. One of its oldest panels, showing the "Adoration of the Magi", is a unique testimony of Christian art.

Only 18 of the original 28 scenes remain.

The panel of the "Epiphany of the Lord" (third, left, upper row) depicts the "Adoration of the Magi". The Mother of God is seated with the Child Jesus on a raised throne to which several steps lead. The three Magi Kings approach bearing their gifts at the "same rapid pace", a typical feature of triumphal art.

This scene fits into a general representation of the history of salvation. It is one of a series of wooden panels carved in relief — almost a concordance of the Old and New Testaments —, whose motifs come mainly from Syria and Palestine. Unfortunately, missing panels have made it impossible to reconstruct their overall catechetical programme.

The subject had a certain resonance: in 1015, Bishop Bernward of Hildesheim, inspired by the wooden door of Santa Sabina, commissioned the famous portal of the Cathedral of Hildesheim. Around 1065, the Church of Santa Maria in Campidoglio of Cologne also acquired a similar wooden door.

The mosaics commissioned by Pope Sixtus III (432-440) that decorate the triumphal arch of the Basilica of St. Mary Major, which has been called the "Roman Bethlehem", are among these unique interpretative works. The mosaics on this arch show the fulfilment of the prophecy through the Messiah's birth.

The divinity of the newborn Child becomes the central theme. The divine Child, who looks particularly small, is seated upon an excessively large and sumptuous throne. He is flanked on the left by Mary, Mother of God, clad in a royal robe of gold, along with a King and St Joseph. On the right, an allegorical figure is recognizable as the Church or "divine Wisdom", accompanied by another two Wise Men in Frigian dress. The star and four angels are depicted behind the throne.

The great variety of the "Roman" representations of the "Adoration of the Magi" make it easy to understand that in Rome, long before the "Cologne period" of the "Three Kings", the important subject of the "Epiphany of the Lord" was conceptually present in theology and the consciousness of the Church: the Mother of God (enthroned) with the (divine) Child, the (three) Magi with the Star and camels or horses; sometimes (three) shepherds and angels were also added.

They have sometimes been set into medallions of the virtues: faith or fides, charity or caritas, and hope or spes.

After the conquest of Milan in 1164, on 9 July, Frederick Barbarossa consigned the relics of the Magi Kings to Rainald of Dassel, his Chancellor and Archbishop of Cologne, as spoils of war.

They were transferred with due solemnity from Milan to Cologne, where veneration of the Magi soon spread to Poland, England and even Ireland.

Obviously, Cologne's best known artworks were created subsequent to the arrival of the remains at the Cathedral.

'Sarcophagus' of the Magi

The famous "sarcophagus" of the Magi is a masterpiece of Medieval goldsmithery.

Nicholas of Verdun and several assistants in his workshop produced the Shrine of the Three Magi, a work of art of immense value and importance to the history of Medieval art, to contain the relics (1181-1230).

Otto IV immortalized himself on this casket as the fourth king (1198 king 1209 emperor), a striking example of the political exploitation of religious sentiment.

The famous altarpiece in Cologne Cathedral by Stephan Lochner (1410-1451) showing the "Adoration of the Magi", despite the many local figures among the Kings' numerous escorts, later contributed further to the veneration of the Wise Men from the East. Lochner painted it as an "educational" account: the Mother of God with the Child imparting a blessing, the three Wise Men of different ages, who are offering him their gifts in a balanced composition with a wealth of detail.

Both these works gave rise to a style that spread far beyond Cologne and Germany.

The key significance of all these artworks is, with different accents, the human quest and request for God.

The Magi who came from the East, important figures, were men of their time who asked critical questions and sought meaning for life. They asked seriously, they sought tenaciously, and they set out readily.

According to religious thinking of the time, they were among the lowliest: pagans, non-believers, those who were far from God.

By asking and seeking, the Wise Men discovered and encountered the Lord. They felt "great joy".

From atheism or minimal faith they were led to conversion and finally, on a different route, went home.

Seeking and adoring God

They had two experiences, of distance and closeness: 1) God is the One who is quite different, who cannot be reached by men and women; 2) God has become a Father to men and women, calling each one by name.

The "great joy" is the peace that God has bestowed upon us through the Incarnation of the Son.

The Wise Men of the East came to the encounter with Jesus: they fell down on their knees, prayed and offered their gifts.

Adoring God thus means giving oneself totally to him and professing him.

Through his Incarnation, his death and his Resurrection, Jesus revealed to all humanity the total gift of himself.

The following is a fundamental part of the Epiphany message: the figurative depictions of the "Three Kings" have some common features that display its central concepts: seeking God, finding him, worshipping him.

Thus, also the representation and patronage of the "Adoration of the Magi" in the chapel of the "Magi Kings", decorated by Francesco Borromini (1599-1667), in the building of the Propaganda Fide, which is the headquarters of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples in Rome, contains this specific meaning: the search for God and his proclamation.

The Magi are examples. They were the first to come from far away, determined to adore Christ, in stark contrast to Herod and, with him, the whole of Jerusalem.

Only the simple shepherds from the region surrounding Bethlehem were closer and swifter.


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
4 January 2006, page 8

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