‘The First Magus’ –
I know – I’ve already talked about two magi, so why is this the First Magus? Well, because I’ve talked about them in reverse order of seniority. Balthazar has a thin, straggly, beard, and I suggested at the time that he was probably the youngest. What I didn’t mention yesterday, when talking about Melchior, is that he had a fine, full beard – and so must be, effectively, the ‘middle aged’ magus. Finally, we get to Casper – who, just to be perverse, doesn’t have a beard at all here: in most paintings his is the longest and whitest. That doesn’t stop him being the most senior – compare and contrast:
Seen next to Melchior, Balthazar’s beard is only the thinnest of whisps, whereas Melchior’s is not only thick, but dark, and lustrous. And Casper? Well, he doesn’t need a beard to show his age – the unmistakeable grey of the hair does that, as does the thinning, not to mention the wrinkles, the bags under the eyes, and other signs of sagging. He may not have a beard, but he does have stubble, a rather wonderful five o’clock shadow, picked out with the lightest specks of paint in different greys.
He even sports a hairy mole, a detail of such striking naturalism that it has often led to the suggestion that this is a portrait. The only contender for the subject would be the man who paid for the painting – the donor – for whom there are suggestions, but let’s not worry about that here. As a portrait, it would also explain why he doesn’t have Casper’s traditional long white beard.
He kneels in obeisance before the Boy Born to be King, the Son of God, and his crown and sceptre have been laid on the ground as a sign of deference. He is the first to do this because he is the most senior, although only Melchior’s servant has followed him in doffing his hat (you can see it here behind Casper’s back). The king is wearing a cloak made of a wonderful, burgundy-coloured, velvet brocade, lined with the softest, thickest fur (look at the rosette of hairs that fans out at his shoulder). He does look entirely European – but then, to my mind, so does Melchior. Perhaps I should say Caucasian, but if we are trying to decide whether Gossaert was following the idea that the kings came from Europe, Africa and Asia, it would be hard to pick which of the two matches the first and the last of these. He is not the only artist to fail to make this distinction: despite the number of different ethnic types available, artists rarely showed a magus who was recognisably Asian. However, the ‘three continents’ idea was not the only theory. As before, to make things simpler, I will quote from the Encyclopedia Britannica: ‘According to Western church tradition, Balthasar is often represented as a king of Arabia or sometimes Ethiopia, Melchior as a king of Persia, and Gaspar as a king of India’. (The spelling differences in the names are common – as are variations in the allocations of ages and origins.) Our Balthazar could conceivably be Ethiopian, but neither of the others would be recognisable as either Persian or Indian. But then, that was not necessarily relevant to the people who originally saw the painting.
I would be hard pressed to recognise this as a crown – although as a hat it is extraordinarily plush. It is a royal hat, certainly, as it is lined with ermine, visible clearly on the upturned brim (which I would assume would be at the back). The hat itself is red velvet, with a band made of elaborate gold links with black tynes. It is topped with an elaborate gold tassel, and the brim is ringed by gold embroidery and pearls. The sceptre is a fantastically elaborate piece of contemporary goldsmithery, as is the object behind the hat, which just happens to be the lid of his gift, which has already been delivered.
Like Balthazar’s hat, it has an inscription, in this case ‘[L]E ROII IASPAR’ – King Jaspar – which is, oddly, another variant of the name Casper. I’ve often been disappointed to think that on the other side of this lid there is not nearly enough space to include the words ‘To Baby Jesus, Happy Christmas, with love from…’ But we’ll get to the gifts in a couple of days.