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Legends of the Madonna - The Adoration of the Magi

( Originally Published 1895 )



Ital. L' Adorazione de' Magi. L' Epifania. Fr. L' Adoration des Rois Mages. Ger. Die Anbetung der Weisen aus dem Morgenland. Die heilige drei Konigen. (Jan. 6.)

This, the most extraordinary incident in the early life of our Saviour, rests on the authority of one evangelist only. It is related by St. Matthew so briefly as to present many historical and philosophical difficulties. I must give some idea of the manner in which these difficulties were elucidated by the early commentators, and of the notions which prevailed in the middle ages relative to the country of the three Kings, before it will be possible to understand or to appreciate the subject as it has been set before us in every style of Art, in every form, in every material, from the third century to the present time.

In the first place, who were these Magi, or these kings, as they are sometimes styled ? " To suppose," says the antique legend, "that they were called Magi because they were addicted to magic, or exercised unholy or forbidden arts, would be, heaven save us ! a rank heresy." No ! Magi, in the Persian tongue, signifies " wise men." They were, in their own country, kings or princes, as it is averred by all the ancient fathers ; and we are not to be offended at the assertion, that they were at once princes and wise men — " Car à l'usage de ce temps-1h les princes et les rois étoient très sages ! "

They came from the eastern country, but from what country is not said ; whether from the land of the Arabians, or the Chaldeans, or the Persians, or the Parthians.

It is written in the Book of Numbers, that when Balaam, the son of Beor, was called upon to curse the children of Israel, he, by divine inspiration, uttered a blessing instead of a curse. And he took up this parable, and said, " I shall see him, but not now ; I shall behold him, but not nigh : there shall come a star out of Jacob, and a sceptre shall rise out of Israel." And the people of that country, though they were Gentiles, kept this prophecy as a tradition among them, and waited with faith and hope for its fulfilment. When, therefore, their princes and wise men beheld a star different in its appearance and movement from those which they had been accustomed to study (for they were great astronomers), they at once knew its import, and hastened to follow its guidance. According to an ancient commentary on St. Matthew, this star, on its first appearance, had the form of a radiant child bearing a sceptre or cross. In a fresco by Taddeo Gaddi it is thus figured, and this is the only instance I can remember. But to proceed with our story.

When the eastern sages beheld this wondrous and long-expected star, they rejoiced greatly ; and they arose, and taking leave of their lands and their vassals, their relations and their friends, set forth on their long and perilous journey across vast deserts and mountains and broad rivers, the star going before them, and arrived at length at Jerusalem, with a great and splendid train of attendants. Being come there, they asked at once, " Where is he who is born King of the Jews ? " On hearing this question, King Herod was troubled, and all the city with him ; and he inquired of the chief priests where Christ should be born. And they said to him, " In Bethlehem of Judea." Then Herod privately called the wise men, and desired they would go to Bethlehem, and search for the young Child (he was careful not to call him King), saying, " When ye have found him, bring me word, that I may come and worship him also." So the Magi departed, and the star which they had seen in the east went before them, until it stood over the place where the young Child was — he who was born King of kings. They had travelled many a long and weary mile ; "and what had they come for to see ? " Instead of a sumptuous palace, a mean and lowly dwelling ; in place of a monarch surrounded by his guards and ministers and all the terrors of his state, an Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid upon his mother's knee, between the ox and the ass. They had come, perhaps, from some far-distant savage land, or from some nation calling itself civilized, where innocence had never been accounted sacred, where society had as yet taken no heed of the defenceless woman, no care for the helpless Child ; where the one was enslaved, and the other perverted ; and here, under the form of womanhood and childhood, they were called upon to worship the promise of that brighter future, when peace should inherit the earth, and righteousness prevail over deceit, and gentleness with wisdom reign for ever and ever ! How must they have been amazed ! how must they have wondered in their souls at such a revelation ! — yet such was the faith of these wise men and excellent kings, that they at once prostrated themselves, confessing in the glorious Innocent who smiled upon them from his mother's knee, a greater than them-selves — the image of a truer divinity than they had ever yet acknowledged. And having bowed themselves down, — first, as was most fit, offering themselves, — they made offering of their treasure, as it had been written in ancient times, " The kings of Tarshish and the isles shall bring presents, and the kings of Sheba shall offer gifts." And what were these gifts ? Gold, frankincense, and myrrh ; by which symbolical oblation they protested a threefold faith : by gold, that he was king ; by incense, that he was God ; by myrrh, that he was man, and doomed to death. In return for their gifts, the Saviour be-stowed upon them others of more matchless price. For their gold he gave them charity and spiritual riches ; for their incense, perfect faith ; and for their myrrh, perfect truth and meekness : and the Virgin, his mother, also bestowed on them a precious gift and memorial, namely, one of those linen bands in which she had wrapped the Saviour, for which they thanked her with great humility, and laid it up amongst their treasures. When they had performed their devotions, and made their offerings, being warned in a dream to avoid Herod, they turned back again to their own dominions ; and the star which had formerly guided them to the west now went before them towards the east, and led them safely home. When they were arrived there, they laid down their earthly state ; and in emulation of the poverty and humility in which they had found the Lord of all power and might, they distributed their goods and possessions to the poor, and went about in mean attire, preaching to their people the new King of heaven and earth, the CHILD-KING, the Prince of Peace. We are not told what was the success of their mission ; neither is it anywhere recorded that from that time forth every child, as it sat on its mother's knee, was, even for the sake of that Prince of Peace, regarded as sacred — as the heir of a divine nature — as one whose tiny limbs enfolded a spirit which was to expand into the man, the king, the God. Such a result was, perhaps, reserved for other times, when the whole mission of that Divine Child should be better understood than it was then, or is now. But there is an ancient oriental tradition that about forty years later, when St. Thomas the apostle travelled into the Indies, he found these wise men there, and did administer to them the rite of baptism ; and that afterwards, in carrying the light of truth into the far East, they fell among barbarous Gentiles and were put to death ; thus each of them receiving, in return for the earthly crowns they had cast at the feet of the Saviour, the heavenly crown of martyrdom and of everlasting life.

Their remains, long afterwards discovered, were brought to Constantinople by the Empress Helena ; thence in the time of the first crusade they were transported to Milan, whence they were carried off by the Emperor Barbarossa, and deposited in the cathedral at Cologne, where they remain to this day, laid in a shrine of gold and gems, and have performed divers great and glorious miracles.

Such, in few words, is the Church legend of the Magi of the East, the " Three Kings of Cologne," as founded on the mysterious gospel incident. Statesmen and philosophers, not less than ecclesiastics, have, as yet, missed the whole sense and large interpretation of the mystic as well as the scriptural story, but well have the artists availed themselves of its picturesque capabilities ! In their hands it has gradually expanded from a mere symbol into a scene of the most dramatic and varied effect and the most gorgeous splendor. As a subject it is one of the most ancient in the whole range of Christian Art. Taken in the early religious sense, it signified the calling of the Gentiles ; and as such we find it carved in bas-relief on the Christian sarcophagi of the third and fourth centuries, and represented with extreme simplicity. The Virgin-mother is seated on a chair, and holds the Infant upright on her knee. The Wise Men, always three in number, and all alike, approach in attitudes of adoration. In some in-stances they wear Phrygian caps, and their camels' heads are seen behind them, serving to express the land whence they came, the land of the East, as well as their long journey; as on one of the sarcophagi in the Christian Museum of the Vatican. The star in these antique sculptures is generally omitted ; but in one or two instances it stands immediately over the chair of the Virgin. On a sarcophagus near the entrance of the tomb of Galla Placidia, at Ravenna, they are thus represented.

The mosaic in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, at Rome, is somewhat later in date than these sarcophagi (A. D. 440), and the representation is very peculiar and interesting. Here the Child is seated alone on a kind of square pedestal, with his hand raised in benediction ; behind the throne stand two figures, supposed to be the Virgin and Joseph ; on each side, two angels. The kings approach, dressed as Roman warriors, with helmets on their heads.

In the mosaic in the church of Sant' Apollinare Nuovo, at Ravenna (A. D. 534), the Virgin receives them seated on a throne, attended by the archangels ; they approach, wearing crowns on their heads, and bending in attitudes of reverence : all three figures are exactly alike, and rather less in proportion than the divine group.

Immediately on the revival of Art we find the Adoration of the Kings treated in the Byzantine style, with few accessories. Very soon, however, in the early Florentine school, the artists began to avail themselves of that picturesque variety of groups of which the story admitted.

In the legends of the fourteenth century the kings had become distinct personages, under the names of Caspar (or Jas-per), Melchior, and Balthasar : the first being always a very aged man with a long white beard ; the second a middle-aged man ; the third is young, and frequently he is a Moor or negro, to express the king of Ethiopia or Nubia, and also to indicate that when the Gentiles were called to salvation, all the continents and races of the earth, of whatever complexion, were included. The difference of ages is indicated in the Greek formula ; but the difference of complexion is a modern innovation, and more frequently found in the German than in the Italian schools. In the old legend of the Three Kings, as inserted in Wright's " Chester Mysteries," Jasper, or Caspar, is king of Tarsus, the land of merchants ; he makes the offering of gold ; Melchior, the king of Arahia and Nubia, offers frankincense ; and Balthasar, king of Saba, — " the land of spices and all manner of precious gums," — offers myrrh).

It is very usual to find, in the Adoration of the Magi, the angelic announcement to the shepherds introduced into the background ; or, more poetically, the Magi approaching on one side, and the shepherds on the other. The intention is then to express a double signification ; it is at once the manifestation to the Jews and the manifestation to the Gentiles.

The attitude of the Child varies. In the best pictures he raises his little hand in benediction. The objection that he was then only an infant of a few days old is futile; for he was from his birth the CHRIST. It is also in accordance with the beautiful and significant legend which describes him as dispensing to the old Wise Men the spiritual blessings of love, meekness, and perfect faith, in return for their gifts and their homage. It appears to me bad taste, verging on profanity, to represent him plunging his little hand into the coffer of gold, or eagerly grasping one of the gold pieces. Neither should he be wrapped up in swaddling clothes, nor in any way a subordinate figure in the group ; for it is the Epiphany, the Manifestation of a divine humanity to Jews and Gentiles, which is to be expressed ; and there is meaning as well as beauty in those compositions which represent the Virgin as lifting a veil, and showing him to the Wise Men.

The kingly character of the adorers, which became in the thirteenth century a point of faith, is expressed by giving them all the paraphernalia and pomp of royalty according to the customs of the time in which the artist lived. They are followed by a vast train of attendants, guards, pages, grooms, falconers with hawks ; and, in a picture by Gaudenzio Ferrari, we have the court-dwarf, and, in a picture by Titian, the court-fool, both indispensable appendages of royal state in those times. The Kings themselves wear embroidered robes, crowns, and glittering weapons, and are booted and spurred as if just alighted from a long journey ; even on one of the sarcophagi they are seen in spurs.

The early Florentine and Venetian painters profited by the commercial relations of their countries with the Levant, and introduced all kinds of outlandish and oriental accessories to express the far country from which the strangers had arrived ; thus we have among the presents, apes, peacocks, pheasants, and parrots. The traditions of the crusades also came in aid, and hence we have the plumed and jewelled turbans, the arm- lets and the scimitars, and, in the later pictures, even umbrellas and elephants. I remember, in an old Italian print of this subject, a pair of hunting leopards or chetas.

It is a question whether Joseph was present — whether he ought to have been present: in one of the early legends it is asserted that he hid himself and would not appear, out of his great humility, and because it should not be supposed that he arrogated any relationship to the divine Child. But this version of the scene is quite inconsistent with the extreme veneration afterwards paid to Joseph ; and in later times, that is, from the fifteenth century, he is seldom omitted. Sometimes he is seen behind the chair of the Virgin, leaning 'On his stick, and contemplating the scene with a quiet admiration. Some-times he receives the gifts offered to the Child, acting the part of a treasurer or chamberlain. In a picture by Angelico one of the Magi grasps his hand as if in congratulation. In a composition by Parmigiano one of the Magi embraces him.

It was not uncommon for pious votaries to have themselves , painted in likeness of one of the adoring Kings. In a picture by Sandro Botticelli (Uffizi, Florence), Cosmo de' Medici is thus introduced ; and in a large and beautifully arranged composition by Leonardo da Vinci, which unhappily remains as a sketch only, the three Medici of that time, Cosmo, Lorenzo, and Giuliano, are figured as the three Kings.

A very remarkable altar-piece [catalogued to Gerard David] represents the worship of the Magi. In the centre, Mary and her Child are seated within a ruined temple ; the eldest of the three Kings, kneeling, does homage by kissing the hand of the Child: it is the portrait of Philip the Good, duke of Burgundy. The second, prostrate behind him with a golden beaker in his hand, is supposed to be one of the great officers of his household. The third King exhibits the characteristic portrait of Charles the Bold ; there is no expression of humility or devotion either in his countenance or attitude ; he stands upright, with a lofty disdainful air, as if he were yet unresolved whether he would kneel or not. On the right of the Virgin, a little in the foreground, stands Joseph in a plain red dress, holding his hat in his hand, and looking with an air of simple astonishment at his magnificent guests. All the accessories in this picture, the gold and silver vessels, the dresses of the three Kings sparkling with jewels and pearls, the velvets, silks, and costly furs, are painted with the most exquisite finish and delicacy, and exhibit to us the riches of the court of Burgundy. (Munich.)

In Raphael's composition (Rome, Vatican) the worshippers wear the classical, not the oriental costume ; but an elephant with a monkey on his back is seen in the distance, which at once reminds us of the far East.

Ghirlandajo frequently painted the Adoration of the Magi, and shows in his management of the accessories much taste and symmetry. In one of his compositions the shed forms a canopy in the centre ; two of the Kings kneel in front. The country of the Ethiopian King is not expressed by making him of a black complexion, but by giving him a negro page, who is in the act of removing his master's crown. (Florence, Pitti.)

A very complete example of artificial and elaborate composition may be found in the drawing by Baldassare Peruzzi in our National Gallery. It contains at least fifty figures; in the centre, a magnificent architectural design; and wonderful studies of perspective to the right and left, in the long lines of receding groups. On the whole, it is a most skilful piece of work ; but to my taste much like à theatrical decoration, --pompous without being animated.

A beautiful composition by Francia I must not pass over. Here, to the left of the picture, the Virgin is seated on the steps of a ruined temple, against which grows a fig-tree, which, though it be December, is in full leaf. Joseph kneels at her side, and behind her are two Arcadian shepherds, with the ox and the ass. The Virgin, who has a charming air of modesty and sweetness, presents her Child to the adoration of the Wise Men : the first of these kneels with joined hands ; the second, also kneeling, is about to present a golden vase ; the negro King, standing, has taken off his cap, and holds a censer in his hand ; and the divine Infant raises his hand in benediction. Behind the Kings are three figures on foot, one a beautiful youth in an attitude of adoration. Beyond these are five or six figures on horseback, and a long train upon horses and camels is seen approaching in the background. The landscape is very beautiful and cheerful ; the whole picture much in the style of Francia's master, Lorenzo Costa. I should at the first glance have sup-posed it to be his, but the head of the Virgin is unmistakably Francia.

There are instances of this subject, idealized into a mystery; for example, in a picture by Palma Vecchio. (Milan, Brera.) St. Helena stands behind the Virgin, in allusion to the legend which connects her with the history of the Kings. [The picture was painted for the church of S. Elena in Isola, near Venice. As the master fell ill before it was finished, it is probable that the work was completed by his pupil Cariani.] In a picture by Garofalo, the star shining above is attended by angels bearing the instruments of the Passion, while St. Bartholomew, holding his skin, stands near the Virgin and Child : it was painted for the abbey of St. Bartholomew, at Ferrara.

Among the German examples, the picture by Albert Dürer, in the tribune of the Uffizi, Florence; and that of Mabuse, in the collection of Lord Carlisle [Castle Howard], are perhaps the most perfect of their kind.

In the last-named picture the Virgin, seated, in a plain dark blue mantle, with the German physiognomy, but large browed, and with a very serious, sweet expression, holds the Child. The eldest of the Kings, as usual, offers a vase of gold, out of which Christ has taken a piece, which he holds in his hand. The name of the King, JASPER, is inscribed on the vase ; a younger King behind holds a cup. The black Ethiopian King, Balthasar, is conspicuous on the left ; he stands, crowned and arrayed in gorgeous drapery, and, as if more fully to mark the equality of the races, at least in spiritual privileges, his train is borne by a white page. An exquisite landscape is seen through the arch behind, and the shepherds are approaching in the middle distance. On the whole, this is one of the most splendid pictures of the early Flemish school I have ever seen ; for variety of character, glow of color, and finished execution, quite unsurpassed.

In a very rich composition by Lucas van Leyden, Herod is seen in the background, standing in the balcony of his palace, and pointing out the scene to his attendants. [The illustration after Martin Schoen shows the characteristics of the German style.]

As we might easily imagine, the ornamental painters of the Venetian and Flemish schools delighted in this subject, which allowed them full scope for their gorgeous coloring, and all their scenic and dramatic power. Here Paul Veronese i revelled unreproved in Asiatic magnificence : here his brocaded robes and jewelled diadems harmonized with his subject; and his grand, old, bearded Venetian senators figured, not unsuitably, as Eastern Kings. Here Rubens lavished his ermine and crimson draperies, his vases, and ewers, and censers of flaming gold; here poured over his canvas the wealth "of Ormuz and of Ind." Of fifteen pictures of this subject, which he painted at different times, the finest undoubtedly is that in the Madrid Gallery. Another, also very fine, is in the collection of the Marquis of Westminster. In both these, the Virgin, contrary to all former precedent, is not seated, but standing, as she holds up her Child for worship. Afterwards we find the same position of the Virgin in pictures by Vandyck, Poussin, and other painters of the seventeenth century. It is quite an innovation on the old religious arrangement ; but in the utter absence of all religious feeling, the mere arrangement of the figures, except in an artistic point of view, is of little consequence.

As a scene of oriental pomp, heightened by mysterious shadows and flashing lights, I know nothing equal to the Rembrandt in the Queen's Gallery [Buckingham Palace] ; the procession of attendants seen emerging from the background through the transparent gloom is quite awful; but in this miraculous picture the lovely Virgin-mother is metamorphosed into a coarse Dutch vrow, and the divine Child looks like a changeling imp.

In chapels dedicated to the Nativity or the Epiphany we frequently find the journey of the Wise Men painted round the walls. They are seen mounted on horseback, or on camels, with a long train of attendants, here ascending a mountain, there crossing a river ; here winding through a defile, there emerging from a forest; while the miraculous star shines above, pointing out the way. Sometimes we have the approach of the Wise Men on one side of the chapel, and their return to their own country on the other. On their homeward journey they are, in some few instances, embarking in a ship : this occurs in a fresco by Lorenzo Costa, and in a bas-relief in the cathedral of Amiens. The allusion is to a curious legend, mentioned by Arnobius the Younger, in his commentary on the Psalms (fifth century). He says, in reference to the 48th Psalm, that when Herod found that the three Kings had escaped from him " in ships of Tarsus," in his wrath he burned all the vessels in the port.

There is a beautiful fresco of the journey of the Magi in the Riccardi chapel at Florence, painted by Benozzo Gozzoli for the old Cosmo de' Medici.

" The Baptism of the Magi by St. Thomas " is one of the compartments of the Life of the Virgin, painted by Taddeo Gaddi, in the Baroncelli chapel at Florence, and this is the only instance I can refer to.

Before I quit this subject — one of the most interesting in the whole range of Art — I must mention a picture by Giorgione in the Belvedere Gallery, well known as one of the few undoubted productions of that rare and fascinating painter, and often referred to because of its beauty. Its signification has hitherto escaped all writers on Art, as far as I am acquainted with them, and has been dismissed as one of his enigmatical allegories. It is called in German, Die Feld mässer (the Land Surveyors), and sometimes styled in English the Geometricians, or the Philosophers, or the Astrologers. It represents a wild, rocky landscape, in which are three men. The first, very aged, in an oriental costume, with a long gray beard, stands holding in his hand an astronomical table; the next, a man in the prime of life, seems listening to him ; the third, a youth, seated and looking upwards, holds a compass. I have myself no doubt that this beautiful picture represents the " three `Wise Men of the East " watching on the Chaldean hills the appearance of the miraculous star, and that the light breaking in the far horizon, called in the German description the rising sun, is intended to express the rising of the star of Jacob. In the sumptuous landscape, and color, and the picturesque rather than religious treatment, this picture is quite Venetian. The interpretation here suggested I leave to the consideration of the observer ; and without allowing myself to be tempted on to further illustration, will only add, in conclusion, that I do not remember any Spanish picture of this subject remarkable either for beauty or originality.



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