Astrologers from the East

Two years ago the Metropolitan Museum in New York acquired a wonderful small work of art, the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ from the Kunsthandlung Julius Böhler. This enchanting relief, measuring 29 x 22 cm, is of cartapesta (papier-mâché), painted in colour and gilded. It dates from around 1470/70 and was made in a workshop in the Upper Rhine region.
The provenance of the relief is similarly impeccable. It comes from the collection of Dr. Albert Figdor (1834–1927) and was bought by Julius Böhler in 1930. Figdor was the son of the Viennese merchant and banker Ferdinand Figdor. He studied Law in Vienna, gained a doctorate and entered the family’s banking business. As a young man, Figdor was already immensely wealthy and began collecting art. His focus lay on sculpture, furniture and small objects.

The title of this work immediately poses all sorts of questions: are the figures depicted in this Adoration scene actually magicians or kings? Where did they come from? What gifts did they bring the Christ Child? With this blog we trace the Christmas Story and throw light on this tradition.

Epiphany (Three Kings’ Day)

At Christmas time – or, more precisely, on 25 December – Christians celebrate the birth of Christ, the Son of God on Earth. A few days later, on 6 January, the Church commemorates the revelation of God incarnate in Jesus Christ (Greek: Epiphany). The Apostle Matthew describes the visit to the crib: Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of 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. (Matthew 2:1–2) The Ancient Greek word ‘magi’ was originally used to refer to members of the Persian-Babylonian priestly caste who were involved with astronomy and astrology. The ‘Three Wise Men’ from the Orient were actually scholars or astrologers. As a result, they were able to interpret the unsual cosmic sight, namely a large star in the night sky, as a summons to follow it. It led the small group to the stable in Bethlehem, above which the star shone: And, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy. (Matthew 2:9–10). The scientific aspect of the Christmas Story is the reason why not only theologians but also astronomers studied passages in the Bible in the Gospel of St Matthew. Many were convinced that such a star did exist. Today, it is assumed that it is more likely to have been a so-called ‘conjunction’ – a phenomonon in the night sky when the planets Saturn and Jupiter appear particurly close together. Such a constellation did actually occur in the year 7 BC.

Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar

The story goes much further. In the 6th century, theologians agreed that three magicians really did appear to worship the Son of God. Their number was probably taken from the presents given – as described by the Apostle Matthew: And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts – gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:11) The three magicians were given the names Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar and rose in status to that of kings. As such, mighty rulers had come to pay homage to the divine child. Caspar is Persian and means ‘treasurer’. Caspar is depicted as a coloured African. According to tradition, he presents the Christ Child with myrrh, a symbol of humanity. Melchior, on the other hand, is Hebrew and means ‘king of light’. Gold is the gift brought by the European-looking Wise Man – a present well suited for a king. The name of the third Magi, Balthazar, is also Hebrew. The Wise Man with Asian features brought frankincense with him. With their gifts, the Wise Men or Magi showed their recognition of Christ as the Son of God and as a divine being. The nationalities of the Three Kings goes back to the time when they were given names, namely to the 6th century, when only the continents of Europe, Asia and Africa were known. All the people of the earth were, therefore, symbolically represented at the birth of the Christ Child.

The power of dreams

The Three Kings with their knowledge of astronomy, not only understood the message represented by the Star but also heeded their own dreams: Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said: Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. (Matthew 2:7–8). And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way. (Mattew 2:12). In this way, King Herod’s dastardly plan to kill the child was thwarted and the divine act of redemption could instead be revealed.

Powerful reliquaries

At the end of the day, there is in fact no concrete evidence that these three men really did exist. Nonetheless, it is said that Empress Helena (c. 250–c.330), the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine I, discovered the mortal remains of the Magi while on a pilgrimage in Palestine. The bones reached Milan by way of Constantinople; the emperor Barbarossa then took them to Cologne in 1162. Since then, the bones – reputedly from the Magi – have remained in the magnificent Shrine of the Three Kings in Cologne cathedral. The shrine was created by Nicholas of Verdun, the most famous goldsmith of his age. The building of the great Gothic cathedral was also related to the arrival of the reliquaries. It was to have been the largest church in the Christian world. Impressive testimonies to faith in the Middle Ages without which no credit would have been given to the story of the three powerful magicians.

Christus mansionem benedictat

The custom of blessing a house in the New Year has survived to this day. The Three Kings and their entourage come as carol singers, acted out by little children in Catholic districts, and write the year over every front door, adding the letters C, M and B: ‘20 C B M 19’ (for 2019). The letters stand for ‘Christus mansionem benedicat’ (Christ bless this house)“.

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