Thursday, January 06, 2011

The Adoration of the Magi

Emil Nolde 1867 - 1956
Die Heiligen Drei Konige (The Three Magi) (Types) 1912
Oil on canvas
51.5 by 42.5 cm
Private collection

The Feast of the Epiphany was one of several biblical subjects that fascinated Nolde who during the time the painting was executed was breaking with the Berlin Sezession artists and moving towards the Der Blaue Reiter group.

The magi ('wise men') were traditionally astrologers of the Persian court and priests of the cult of Mithras, but were later redefined as kings, based on a similar story of royal gift-giving in the Old Testament (Psalms 72:10).

In the early Middle Ages (by about 750), they were given names, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, and were said to come from the kingdoms of Tarshish, Sheba and Seba (Seba was thought to be an ancient name for Ethiopia).

From about the 15th century, Balthazar, the black magus/king associated with Ethiopia became a familiar figure in European images of the Adoration of Christ at his birth.

From the fourteenth century, it was customary to differentiate the Magi between their ages, representing one as youthful, one as middle aged, and one as elderly.

From the fifteenth century, especially in German and the Netherlands, one was frequently portrayed as a moor.

Thus, they implicitly acquired the persona of the three Ages of Man and the three Continents of Asia, Europe and Africa. (G. Schiller, Iconography of Christian Art, vol. 1, London 1971, pp.94-114).

The Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy describes some of the popular pieties for today;

"Solemnity of the Lord's Epiphany

118. Many traditions and genuine manifestations of popular piety have been developed in relation to the Solemnity of the Lord's Epiphany, which is of ancient origin and rich in spiritual content. Among such forms of popular piety, mention may be made of :

the solemn proclamation of Easter and the principal dominical feasts; its revival in many places would be opportune since it served to make the connection between the Epiphany and Easter, and orientate all feasts towards the greatest Christian solemnity;

the exchange of "Epiphany gifts", which derives from the gifts offered to Jesus by the three kings (cf. Mt 2,11) and more radically from the gift made to mankind by God in the birth of Emmanuel amongst us (cf. Is 7, 14; 9, 16; Mt 1, 23). It is important, however, to ensure that the exchange of gifts on the solemnity of the Epiphany retain a Christian character, indicating that its meaning is evangelical: hence the gifts offered should be a genuine expression of popular piety and free from extravagance, luxury, and waste, all of which are extraneous to the Christian origins of this practice;

the blessing of homes, on whose lentils are inscribed the Cross of salvation, together with the indication of the year and the initials of the three wise men (C+M+B), which can also be interpreted to mean Christus mansionem benedicat, written in blessed chalk; this custom, often accompanied by processions of children accompanied by their parents, expresses the blessing of Christ through the intercession of the three wise men and is an occasion for gathering offerings for charitable and missionary purposes;

initiatives in solidarity with those who come from afar; whether Christian or not, popular piety has encouraged a sense of solidarity and openness;

assistance to the work of evangelisation; the strong missionary character of the Epiphany has been well understood by popular piety and many initiatives in support of the missions flourish on 6 January, especially the "Missionary work of the Holy Child", promoted by the Apostolic See;

the assignation of Patrons; in many religious communities and confraternities, patron saints are assigned to the members for the coming year."