‘Tis the season to be triumphant and jolly!
It is also the season to embrace the spirit of hope and miracles of the human heart. When we do — miracles happen.
There is no bigger miracle than the birth of a child. It is truly a mystery and wondrous thing, no matter what religion you practice or how cynical you may be. Life, the creation of life, and the hope that springs from new birth are inspirational. It is also a powerful motivation to create a better world to protect and nurture the newborn as well as the love of our fellow man.
To celebrate this season of miracles and magic, I want to share with you some beautiful works of art of the magi — the kings who followed the light of the world to a small stall in the wilderness, seeking a newborn child — and hope.
The magi are traditionally known in western culture as the three kings Balthazar, Caspar, and Melchior. The term comes from Latin “magus,” and they were the priests in Zoroastrianism and the earlier religions of the western Iranians. The earliest known use of the word magi is in the trilingual inscription written by Darius the Great — the Persian king.
The biblical Magi are mentioned by Matthew (2:1-12). He is the only one of the four apostles to do so and refers to the wise men as kings, distinguished foreigners who visited the Christ child after his birth, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. He reports that they came “from the east” to worship the king of the Jews.
The day they arrived, is actually January 6th, the day of Epiphany… after all, it took them a few days to find the child after his birth. This is an important day in Italy. It is on this day that the Italians traditionally celebrate and give one another gifts in honor of the magi and their contributions to the newborn babe.
Interesting note: Matthew never actually mentions the number of visitors. Usually, the magi numbered in twelve, but it is assumed there were three because Matthew mentions they brought three gifts. So, it is kind of fun to image there was a whole party of wise men traipsing about searching for the baby, bringing him three of their most precious gifts.
Through the years, many artists have made representations of the magi. Some are my favorites were created by Sandro Botticelli and Benozzo Gozzoli.
Botticelli’s painting was painted in 1475, and you can view it in the Uffizi in Florence. In his entourage or worshipers, you can make out the likenesses of many of the Medici family, including Cosimo de’ Medici.
It appears the theme of the magi was a popular theme amongst the Medici family, as once again Cosimo I commissioned Benozzo Gozzoli, a student of Fra Angelico, to decorate the chapel in the Medici – Ricardi Palace in 1459. After his death, the work was carried out under the supervision of Cosimo’s son Piero de’ Medici.
Benozzi’s Procession of the Magi, reveals the artist’s talent for decorative arts in the detail of the jewels, harnesses, and fabrics, as well as his gift for landscape — evident in the trees laden with fruit and the fields sprinkled with flowers. This may well be attributed to the fact that Benozzi worked as a goldsmith in Ghiberti’s studio. As a result, his technique is almost as if he was engraving the images on the wall. To finish off his painting, he applied pure gold to the walls so that they would shine in the dark, in the dim light of the candles.
Benozzi also had a talent for portraiture, and in this pageant, one can also make out the likeness of Lorenzo de Medici as a young boy seated on a fine white horse — the chosen one. Who, but the future leader of Florence, should be on a quest to find the baby Jesus!
Today, in Italy, the magi are featured guests in the presepe — the manager scene — that Italian families build at this time of the year. But, you will never see the three kings in the manager until January 6th — the day of Epiphany — the day the magi made a miraculous life-changing discovery that changed the world.