An Advent Calendar – 15

A Magus…‘ –

‘We Three Kings of Orient…’ aren’t in the bible. What it says in Matthew 2:1 is, ‘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’. This is all it says – ‘wise men’ – not kings, not three. At least the carol gets the ‘Orient’ bit right, as they were from ‘the east’, according to Matthew, although you always have to wonder, ‘east from where?’ East from Bethlehem, I would assume, although my gut response would be that today’s magus comes from the south west, as far as Bethlehem is concerned.

Why do we think there were three? Why do we think they were kings? And where were they from? I’ll be thinking about all of these questions over the next few days, but mainly, I suspect, today. First of all, the number three. It makes perfect sense. After all, ‘when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense and myrrh’ (Matthew 2:11). So, one gift each. Let’s not consider the possibility that there might have been more of them, and that they pooled their resources, or that two magi were especially beneficent – one gift each is enough to explain the presence of three people. And given that the one Christian God exists in three persons – the Holy Trinity – it is a fitting number. It also means that they can represent all sorts of other ideas that come in threes. More than one Italian painting of the Adoration of the Magi has them dressed in white, green and red, not because the paintings were Italian (‘Italy’ didn’t exist in as a Nation State when they were made), but because they were the colours associated with the theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity (in that order). They were also associated with the three ages of man – young, middle-aged and old. With his straggly, thin beard, today’s magus must be the young one, but we can check that out over the next few days. There was also a tradition that if they were kings (see below), then they could have been the kings of the three known continents, Europe, Africa and Asia, and so this is presumably the African king. However, their place of origin was never fixed.

The number three is easy to understand. But then, when you know the reasoning, so is the idea that they were kings (this one certainly has a splendid crown – but more of that tomorrow). The idea relates to (at least) two texts from the Jewish Scriptures. The first comes from the book of Isaiah (1:3&6):

And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising…

The multitude of camels shall cover thee, the dromedaries of Midian and Ephah; all they from Sheba shall come: they shall bring gold and incense; and they shall shew forth the praises of the Lord.

This ties in with the idea we discussed yesterday that the shepherdswere in the same country’, and so came to represent the Jews who converted to Christianity. The Kings represented the Gentiles who became Christian – as prophesied by Isaiah with the words ‘the Gentiles shall come to thy light’. And then, of course, Isaiah mentions ‘kings’ who ‘shall bring gold and incense’ – it’s easy to see why this passage was associated with the Nativity (and, while we’re at it, the quotation also explains the number of camels that appear in paintings of the magi).

So where were they from? Well, Midian, Ephah and Sheba, according to Isaiah. But Psalm 72:10-11 has another idea:

The kings of Tarshish and of the isles shall bring presents: the kings of Sheba and Seba shall offer gifts. Yea, all kings shall fall down before him: all nations shall serve him.

Again, we have the idea of kings, and again Sheba comes to the fore. To be honest, no one is entirely clear where it was, although current opinion is that it should be identified as Saba, in South Arabia. However, Josephus, writing in the 1st Century, thought it was in Ethiopia, and this is the opinion that would have been current when our magus was painted. This is more than enough justification for a Black King, although the earliest known example wasn’t painted until around 1360.  It’s not something I know a huge amount about, so I’m looking forward to finding out more: my colleague Leslie Primo will be my guest for the first session of the National Gallery’s Stories of Art: Module 3, which starts on 6 January (the course goes on general sale on Friday), and will be talking about the Black King.

The Psalm also mentions Seba – which may or may not be distinguishable from Sheba, apparently – and Tarshish, which is very hard to pin down. Suggestions have included Sardinia, Spain, Tuscany and even (in the 19th Century) Britain – which might explain the theory that one of the Kings was from Europe. However, other suggestions have also included India, South Africa, and ‘the Phoenician coast’.  Isaiah also mentions Midian (probably in the northwest Arabian peninsula) and Ephah (arguably a bit closer to Bethlehem than Midian). Overall, though, with the possible exception of Tarshish (wherever that was supposed to be), and taking the modern opinion of Sheba as Saba, we could argue that the magi came from Persia. This would make sense, as the Magi were, in all probability, members of a respectable class of Persian astrologer. Let’s face it, they must have been quite highly regarded, as they seem to have had little difficulty in getting access to King Herod.

The story of the Magi – who, what and whence – is common to all paintings of the Adoration. The the Black Magus – or King – on the other hand is a relative newcomer, and not fixture. He appeared first in the second half of the 14th Century, and featured more and more regularly throughout the 15th and 16th Centuries. However, there is one way in which this image stands out: it is not a racial stereotype, unlike so many, but the result of meticulous observation.

As an illustration of this, look at the careful way in which the eye sockets are formed – the right cheek bone (on our left) has a subtle highlight to the left of the shadow marking the socket, and the lower eyelid has a another highlight, going into shadow again as it reaches the bridge of the nose, where shadow takes over once more. The lips, too, are sensitively delineated, and distinguished one from the other by both form and outline. The artist is not making assumptions – he is painting what he has seen – seen, and carefully observed. Today’s magus is also beautifully characterised, transfixed as he is in the presence of the infant Christ. There is plenty more to say about him, but, until tomorrow…

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

3 thoughts on “An Advent Calendar – 15

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