Visitors from afar
Fr. Joseph Gallatin, St. Mary of Czestochowa Catholic, Delano
Christians recently celebrated Epiphany, one of the great feasts of the church year.
The traditional date for Epiphany is Jan. 6, but for a long time now, the Catholic church, in many countries, has transferred the feast to a Sunday. This year, it was Jan. 7.
The word “epiphany,” itself, comes from two Greek words which mean “show forth,” or “manifestation.”
The church has traditionally celebrated three mysteries on this day, all of which have to do with the manifestation of God in the flesh: the visit of the Magi, the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan, and the making the water into wine at Cana. I doubt that most people ever think of these three things together, but they lie at the heart of Epiphany.
The earliest of the three mysteries in the life of Jesus was, of course, the visit of the Magi, and it is this manifestation that we most closely associate with Epiphany.
It may be that the carol, “We Three Kings of Orient Are” has had a profound effect on our understanding of the visit of the Magi. The Gospel of Matthew, which is the only one of the four gospels to record this visit, never says that the Magi are kings, nor does it say that there are three of them. But the Magi, or “great ones,” have been very important to the Christian people for almost as long as we have been around.
In the December issue of a periodical called Inside the Vatican, art historian Elizabeth Lev traces the history of how the visit of the Magi has been depicted in Christian art. She states that the oldest image of the Magi is a fresco from the fourth century on the wall of the chapel of St. Priscilla in Rome. In this fresco, the Magi are portrayed as three young men in single file who are moving toward the Virgin Mary, who is seated on a throne with Jesus in her arms. The only distinction they have among themselves is the colors they wear: one white, one red, and the one green.
Lev says that these three colors refer to each of the three continents of the known world: Asia, Africa, and Europe. She states, “The feast of the Epiphany was enormously significant in this age. The Nativity of Christ, itself, was still celebrated on Jan. 6 as part of the Epiphany. God’s manifestation to man so awed and amazed the early Christians that the illustration of the adoration of the Magi could be employed to represent the whole Christological cycle from Incarnation to Ascension.”
After Christianity was legalized in the year 313, the art of the Christian people began to reflect the new circumstances. If the religion were now legal, it could be discussed and debated. And if it could be debated, then teachings not authorized by the Church could be introduced.
One false teaching, or heresy, claimed that Jesus was not really God, so art found ways to emphasize the divinity of Jesus. The visit of the Magi was frequently used as a subject to do just this.
Lev describes a marble sarcophagus with a relief sculpture of the Magi: “No longer distinguished by color, the Magi are individualized by the gifts they offer to Jesus.”
Gold, she says, symbolized the royalty of Jesus. Frankincense, a hardened plant resin molded into balls that could be sold at a high price, was used as the finest incense in temples, so it symbolized Jesus’ divinity. Myrrh, used in embalming, symbolized the humanity of Jesus and the fact that he would suffer in order to save people from their sins.
The marble sculpture portrays each Magus in the dress of a different Eastern philosophical tradition: that of the cult of Orpheus, that of Mithras and Zoroastrianism, and that of the Jewish prophet Daniel. “These three men from different intellectual and religious traditions,” Lev said, “were associated with the Magi to symbolize how the new religion, the Gospel of Jesus, superceded all others.”
In the seventh century, the Magi were given names, and artists began the custom of portraying them, according to Lev, in the “three ages of man” youth, adulthood, and old age.
In wealthy 15th-century Florence, the Magi were portrayed as kings in dazzling clothes; this seems to speak to people with great wealth, “reminding them that for the gifts of beauty, wealth or intelligence to have meaning, they must be placed in the service of God.”
In a painting from 1500, the Magi are shown as a fair-skinned European, an olive-skinned Muslim, and a dark-skinned and youthful African, who represent the countries that at that time, still were to be evangelized.
Lev ends her essay by pointing out how the tradition had come full circle by 1500, with the emphasis on the ethnicities of the Magi “enjoining all nations to bow before Christ to represent the need to spread the Gospel to every corner of an ever-growing world.”