The Feast of the Epiphany, the 12th Day of Christmas, is one of my favorite holidays on the liturgical calendar. For nearly four centuries Christians in the east and west commemorated Christ’s birth on January 6. But since 353, C.E., Christians in Western Europe have celebrated the first “manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (non-Jewish people) in the persons of the Magi,”says the Concise Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, on the twelfth day of Christmas. In that year, Pope Liberius transferred Christmas Day to December 25 while keeping the Feast of the Epiphany in place on January 6. E.O. James speculates in Seasonal Feasts and Festivals that Liberius probably wanted to counteract Saturnalia, the Roman festival in honor of the god Saturn, and the Mithraic holiday in honor of the Sun’s birth, both of which took place in December.
In time, this story of the Magi’s encounter with God’s Son, chronicled in the second chapter of Matthew’s gospel, came to signify the belief that all humans, regardless of race, national origin, or stage in life, are people of God. Thus, artists portrayed the Magi as three men of different nationalities and/or races whose ages cover the life span from young to old. The youngest of them is often beardless. The Biblical account does not name or number the Magi though it does identify the three gifts—gold, frankincense and myrrh—they presented to the Christ child. Early legends fixed the Magi’s number at three and gave them names: Caspar of India, Balthasar from Arabia, and Melchior of Persia. Starting in the the later middle ages, artists in northern Europe began to depict one of the Magi as an African. He appears in an early 16th century Adoration of the Magi sculpture at Chartres Cathedral (photo 1).
In today’s post, we’ll travel with the Three Magi (also known as the Three Kings or Wise Men) to Chartres and Amiens Cathedrals in France, Cologne Cathedral in Germany, and a few notable churches in the U.S., to see how their legend appears in stained glass and sculpture. We’ll start at Chartres where the gospel account of the Magi’s journey glistens in newly restored 12th century glass.
Several panels in the Life of Christ window at Chartres Cathedral (photo 2, above) portray some of the key passages in Matthew’s gospel account of the Epiphany. The first two panels in the series show King Herod meeting with the Magi. Herod is troubled by the news that they have seen a star and have come to worship a newborn king. Herod consults with the chief priests and scribes who determine that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem (photo 3). The wise men listen to Herod as he sends them forth to Bethlehem with the instruction to return after they have found the Messiah and “bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also” (photo 4).
The Magi proceed to Bethlehem (photo 5). They bear gifts in their right hands and hold staffs with their left to signify that they are traveling. Camels show up in later images of the Three Kings. They follow an eight pointed star (the number symbolizes infinity and resurrection) toward Bethlehem where they find Mary enthroned with the Christ child seated on her lap (photo 6). Mary raises her scepter to indicate that she will receive the Three Kings into her “court.” Jesus raises an enlarged right hand in a sign of blessing.
After the Three Kings present their gifts, an angel warns them in a dream “that they should not return to Herod” (photo 7). They depart for their own country, still following the star, by “another way” (photo 8). The younger king on the left looks none too happy with Herod!
Germany’s Cologne Cathedral, officially the Cathedral of St. Peter, is home to what may be the most extensive collection of stained glass dedicated to the Three Kings in the world. That should come as no great surprise given that the Cathedral has been the home of the presumed relics of the Magi since 1164 (photo 9). The acquisition of the priceless relics made Cologne a destination for Christian pilgrims from throughout Europe. Even today, the Cathedral reportedly is Germany’s most visited historic site.
Since the construction of Cologne Cathedral spanned nearly six centuries, its stained glass images of the Magi and their adoration for the Christ child cover different periods and artistic styles. Our sampling below includes examples from the 13th, 14th, 16th, and 19th centuries (photos 10 – 13).
The rather spare Biblical account of the Three King’s journey to Bethlehem prompted imaginative story tellers to fill in some of the blanks. Jacobus of Voragine included legends about the Magi in the Golden Legend, his widely read compilation of the saints’ lives (the Three Kings were regarded as saints at the time). According to one legend, the Magi planned to return to their homeland by boat via Tarsus. When an enraged Herod learned of their itinerary, he went to Tarsus himself to burn all the boats in the port. This strange episode appears among the beautifully sculpted medallions on Amiens Cathedral’s west porch (photo 14). Other medallions depict the discovery of the star from atop an observation tower (photo 15).
We’ll conclude today’s post with a look at some examples of how modern artists have rendered the Adoration of the Magi in the stained glass of some American churches. Note that the designers often continued the tradition of portraying one of the Magi as an African and the youngest one without a beard, as in the 19th century Epiphany Window by a German studio at Denver’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (photo 16).
It’s also worth noting that modern artists frequently combine the Biblical accounts of the Adoration of the Shepherds and Adoration of the Magi into one composition. This was not necessarily common in the middle ages, although a 13th century example of the type appears at Canterbury Cathedral in England (photo 17). Nineteenth century windows at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City (photo 18) and Gesu Church in Milwaukee (photos 19 & 20) take this combined approach in the expressive and richly detailed pictorial style that was popular in the late 1800’s.
The Three Kings remain popular in art and the imagination nearly two thousand years after their story was first told. Be looking for them under the Christmas tree, and throughout the year in a cathedral or church near you. Happy Epiphany!
Mike Klug, firstname.lastname@example.org, 01/06/15