We Three Kings of Orient Are?



The Magi who recognized baby Jesus as lord, how many there were, and where they traveled from. Mary By Joan Winn Leith December 15, 2020

“Adoration of the Magi,” detail from a 4th century sarcophagus, Vatican Museum Inv31459

We three kings of Orient are
Bearing gifts we traverse afar.
Field and fountain, moor and mountain
Following yonder star.
John Henry Hopkins Jr. (1857)

How many kings followed the star to the manger in Bethlehem?

The answer?


Look up the original story in the Gospel of Matthew 2:1-12. Notwithstanding the famous Christmas carol by Mr. Hopkins, Jr (of Williamsport, PA), Jesus’s visitors from the east are Magi: technically, a title for Zoroastrian priests but Matthew’s usage follows the Greco-Roman notion that Magi were dream interpreting astrologer-astronomers from Persia or Mesopotamia who possessed secret knowledge (“magi” and “magic” are etymologically related). Matthew’s Magi weren’t commonly portrayed as kings until the thirteenth century,[1] inspired by Psalm 72:10-11 which was interpreted as a foretelling of the Adoration of the Magi:

May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles
                        render him tribute,
            may the kings of Sheba and Seba
                        bring gifts. 
         May all kings fall down before him,
                        all nations give him service.[2]

Even if we substitute “Magi” for “kings” there is still a “does-not-compute” aspect to the question: Matthew never specifies the number of Magi. The now-standard number, three, did not appear until the third century when the Church father Origen derived it from the three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The number has varied. While Origen was contemplating three Magi in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, away to the east in Syria someone composed a wonderfully strange story called The Revelation of the Magi. It exists in a single Syriac (closely related to Jesus’s Aramaic) manuscript in the Vatican Library and was not published in English until 2010.[3] It recounts the story of the twelve Magi and their journey from a remote kingdom that seems to be China.

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Notice all the place names that have come up so far! China, Persia, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Syria, Tarshish, Sheba Pennsylvania! Globalism is inevitable where the Adoration of the Magi story is concerned. From the beginning, Matthew’s story about travelers following the trail of a mysterious star was all about including “foreigners” in the Christmas story. Matthew showed Gentiles—in other words non-Jews, people who worshipped so-called pagan gods—acknowledging Jesus as king and, presumably, savior. This is the idea behind Epiphany, one of the oldest Christian feasts. “Epiphany,” from the Greek word for “appearance” (and especially of gods and kings), recognizes Jesus’s first appearance to the world and is celebrated in western Christianity on January 6, the “twelfth day of Christmas.” (Alexandria, Origen’s city, may have been the first place to celebrate Epiphany—in the late second or early third century.[4])

The international dimension of the Adoration of the Magi comes through most vividly in art—indeed, from the beginning of Christian art. Consider this Adoration of the Magi from a fourth-century sarcophagus. It was created after the legalization of Christianity by the Emperor Constantine, but the same scene appeared in the catacombs at least a century earlier.[5] (This visual motif is the ultimate origin of the familiar image of the Madonna and Child.) The early Christian Adoration scenes depict the Magi as Persians, one of Rome’s standard “foreigner” stereotypes. This is apparent in the hats that flop down from a slight peak and, although it is not clear in the example here, trousers. Of course, the camels are another exotic element, but they come from Christian interpretation of Isaiah 60:6 as a foretelling of the Adoration (and again, a biblical text in international mode):

A multitude of camels shall cover you,
                        the young camels of Midian and Ephah;
                        all those from Sheba shall come.
            They shall bring gold and frankincense,
                        and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

Where Matthew treats the quasi-Persian Magi almost heroically as intrepid travelers who worship Jesus and refuse to abet King Herod’s malicious schemes, it is also important to note that Persia was Rome’s continuous enemy for some seven hundred years. Early Christians in Rome would likely have viewed images of the reverent Persians bearing gifts to Jesus not just in terms of the Gospel story but also as a sign that the coming of Christ and the Church promised peace. As Pope Leo the Great wrote in a mid-fifth-century sermon for Epiphany: In the three Magi let all people worship the author of the universe: and let God be known not in Judea alone, but in all the world.[6]

Andrea Mantegna, “Adoration of the Magi,” c. 1460, central panel of a triptych, Uffizi Museum, Florence. {{PD-US-expired}}

Let me conclude by considering another Adoration of the Magi, a painting by the Renaissance artist Andrea Mantegna from around 1460. The three wise men, recognizable from their pink overgarments, approach a cave where Jesus is seated on Mary’s lap under a protective arch of putti (baby angels). From the sumptuous costumes alone, including turbans respectfully removed, Renaissance Italians would perceive that Jesus’s visitors are foreigners.

Perhaps most striking of all, however, is the third wise man, the one on both knees, whose dark brown skin and close-cropped black hair indicate he is from sub-Saharan Africa. He is the most richly dressed, with a gold tunic edged overall with jewels and an immense jeweled clasp at his throat fastening a white hooded cape. Behind the wise men follows a bustling train of servants in every shade of skin color, some leading two-humped Bactrian camels. The headgear on view is not European-Christian but recognizably Arab, Turkish, and even Chinese. This Florentine Adoration presents us with a decidedly multicultural Nativity.

The idea that one of the three Magi was Black appears in Europe in the thirteenth century, but did not become a feature of Adoration scenes until the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. A number of factors were in play, among them the tradition that the Magi represented the three known continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia. A recent exhibition at the Getty Museum[7] featured the Black Magus (the singular word) in Medieval and Renaissance European art, drawing attention to new studies of Blackness and race in European culture of the time. Among the findings are that blackness was associated with sin and heresy (illicit religious beliefs), that instances of the Black Magus in art coincided with the beginning of Europe’s trade in enslaved Africans, and that in the often extravagant pageantry of the time, Blacks represented not real characters but the foreign and exotic.

These are valid and important points. However, I would like to use Mantegna’s “Adoration” to qualify somewhat the Medievalist Cord Whittaker’s claim that, “The black king is little more than a one-off, an exception to the rule, a token.”[8] Europeans at this time were certainly encountering Black Africans more often, many of whom were enslaved, but encounters were still rare. The average European of Mantegna’s time was sub-literate at best and as yet unexposed to racialized views of Blackness—the industrial-level slave trade that would soon motivate new racist views provided labor primarily in the New World, not Europe. I would like to suggest that, yes, Europeans, no less than all of us today, might see Mantegna’s Black Magus as exotic—and good and noble and, most important, human. Mantegna was, after all, participating in Renaissance humanism and its embrace of all that is human. And could not the Magi’s remarkably multiracial retinue have enlightened viewers to the rich range of humanity and even the possibility of peaceful co-existence? This is, after all, the message of Christmas.

Published by depatridge

Serving humanity dispassionately, whatever the cost.

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