An Advent Calendar – 23

‘Frankincense’ –

Frankincense to offer have I, 
Incense owns a Deity nigh:
Prayer and praising
All men raising,
Worship Him, God on high.

We Three Kings was originally written to be sung by three men, each one representing a magus, and each verse was sung as a solo, explaining the choice of gift. The first and last verses were to be sung together. John Henry Hopkins, Jr., who wrote both words and music, was the rector of Christ Episcopal Church in Westport, Pennsylvania,  but he wrote the song for a Christmas pageant which was performed in New York in 1857. So it wasn’t originally intended for church services – or carolling – but nevertheless, as you will know, it has become enormously successful. Maybe that is because it is so entirely appropriate – and Hopkins clearly knew his Origen (or any one of the subsequent authors who took up his interpretation of the gifts). In the same way that the most common interpretation of gold – that it is a gift entirely suitable for a king – goes back to Origen at the very latest, so does the association between frankincense and godhead. Quoting from Contra Celsus (c. 248) again, ‘gold, as to a king… and incense, as to a God’.

If the gift of gold was proffered in a container that outclasses the gift itself, the frankincense outclasses that too. This must be a heavy object, if it really is gold – and only the fact that Melchior can hold it effortlessly on his outstretched hand would lead us to think otherwise. He appears to have superhuman strength. Either that, or it is weightless: maybe its spirituality outweighs its physical heft. While the cup for the gold has a six-fold symmetry, here the symmetry is four-fold. The base is a scalloped square, and a third of the way up, at the ‘hip’ of the cup, there are four circular plates, like shields, each set with a red gemstone. Above this is a lid of some sort, although it looks more like the spire of a church, with openwork inspired by the tracery of gothic windows, topped by an elaborate crown. Rather than a cup, it is more like a reliquary, fashioned of precious materials to contain an even more valuable fragment of a Saint’s earthly remains. Compare it to the Belém Monstrance, made in 1506 in Portugal, for example:

Unlike yesterday’s gold, school children can offer little in the way of alternative interpretations for the Frankincense, I’m afraid, although they frequently call it Frankenstein by mistake (and even that will be a mistake, as, like most people, they will be thinking of the eponymous anti-hero’s monster). But the more down to earth of adult contributors have argued that Frankincense was simply a practical gift, particularly given that the stable probably smelt. Indeed, in the centuries on either side of the birth of Christ it was used to improve on personal odours – given that most people were a couple of millennia away from running water, let alone bathrooms. More recently its health benefits have been subject to scientific investigation, and it has been found to reduce the symptoms of arthritis, for example, and other forms of inflammation, as well as having some impact on immune response. Back in the first century, though, it would have been the smell that counted, and when it was burnt the smoke was seen as rising to god – whichever god you followed – hence its association with ‘a Deity nigh’.

Published by drrichardstemp

I talk about art...

4 thoughts on “An Advent Calendar – 23

  1. Just to say this has been my go to email each day ! Really lovely and fascinating insight into this painting .At this challenging time just super to find out more about paintings- one day your work will help me and the grandchildren, when we go to a gallery ,to find magic in art !Thank you and a safe and happy holiday xx

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