Born a King on Bethlehem plain, Gold I bring to crown Him again, King forever Ceasing never Over us all to reign.
We know what the gifts are – it tells us in the bible. That is how we know there were gifts in the first place. They are in Matthew 2:11, which I quoted from when we met our first magus, but here is the whole verse:
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.
Notice that it doesn’t mention Joseph – and indeed, the earliest images of the Adoration of the Magi show them approaching Mary, with the Child seated on her lap, and Joseph is nowhere to be seen. Luke, however, does mention him, when the shepherds arrive: ‘And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger’ (Luke 2:16) – which just goes to prove that the Oxford comma is vital, or it would have had to be a very large manger. Maybe Matthew’s failure to mention Joseph explains why he is in the doorway in this painting – he might have been in the ‘back room’ when the Kings arrived… But I digress (and not for the first time).
So they brought three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. But why these gifts? They are hardly suitable for a baby. Well, the first is fairly obvious. Earlier in Matthew (2:1-2) it says,
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.
So they were looking for ‘he that is born King of the Jews’. And gold is one of the main symbols of Kingship. This is an interpretation which probably goes back as far as the gospel itself, but it was certainly written down in the third century. Origen of Alexandria wrote Contra Celsum around 248, after Celsus had written an excoriating criticism of Christianity. He was worried that it was taking people away from the established religion, and that its continued growth would inevitably lead to a collapse in moral values. Plus ça change – it seems that people have always been worried about that. Anyway, in his defence of Christianity Against Celsus, Origen says that the Magi brought ‘gold, as to a king’. And people have stuck with that interpretation ever since – it is certainly the version we are familiar with from the Christmas carol quoted above. Admittedly it was also suggested, and not without reason, that the gift of gold was entirely practical – after all, there was no room in the inn. With that much gold, they would be able to afford far better lodgings.
But neither is my favourite theory. Gossaert has shown the gift as made up of gold coins, one of which we can see held between the thumb and forefinger of the new-born babe. This precocious ability to co-ordinate his movements should not surprise us: this is the Son of God, after all. At one point, not long after the Magi would have headed home, the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (written, in all probability, in the first half of the seventh century) has Jesus say, ‘do not consider me to be a little child; for I am and always have been perfect’ – so holding a coin shouldn’t be a problem. However, surely the gold coins are only part of the gift – the ‘gift wrap’ is fairly impressive too! We saw the ‘label’ the other day – the lid of the cup, which is decorated with Casper‘s name. The cup itself must be made of more gold than the coins it contains, and is another wonderful example of the goldsmith’s craft. When set down it would rest on a hexagonal base, a small gold sheep projecting from each corner (just part of the future flock?), and in between there is a series of medallions appropriately decorated with images of Kings.
Anyway, the image of the Christ Child holding a gold coin once led a school group visiting the National Gallery – not one I was with, sadly – to interpret the painting based on their own personal experience. It’s what we all do. This was probably just as mobile phones were starting to take off, but certainly weren’t at all common. So what would happen if Jesus had wanted to phone home? Clearly the coins could be used for a phone box. After all, heaven is quite some long way away, and the rates must be exorbitant. Indeed, there is some evidence that he has already run up a rather worrying bill. What else would the angels you can see below be holding? And why else would they be looking so anxious? Not so much ‘Glory to God in the Highest’ as ‘How much?’ It’s perfect Art History. Look at the details, develop a theory, test it against the available evidence. These schoolchildren did all three – and I for one rather wish their theory had passed the test. Clearly the ‘looking’ is the most important part for the appreciation of art, although admittedly it won’t always glean accurate results for the histories of theology and technology. I’m sorry, I may have digressed again…