Three Wise Men? How about Thirty-three? My series on the Christmas story in masterpieces continues today with Part 3, featuring those most famous Magi.
It is, of course, well known now that these men were the scientists/magicians of their day, not so much Wise as Learned, the scholars and star-gazers who came from a long distance away led by the most famous of all Stars. Most biblical scholars agree, as well, that the Magi likely came to Bethlehem long after the birth of Christ, perhaps even two or three years after the first Christmas. They have traditionally been included in our Nativity scenes and Christmas cards but it is likely they were not around when the shepherds found Mary, Joseph and the baby, lying in a manger. Most likely they gave their extravagant gifts to a toddler instead (which is an even more precious scene, if you think about it).
The two masterpieces I’d like to share with you today have the Wise Men in common but not much else. The first is The Procession of the Magi by Benozzo Gozzoli (1459-1461) and the second is The Adoration of the Magi by Rubens (1609-1610).
Though not a household name to us today, Gozzoli was prominent enough in his time to be commissioned by the wealthy and influential Medici family to create this fresco for the Palazzo Medici Riccardi in Florence, Italy. We see again a biblical story portrayed for a contemporary audience that would have recognized the clothing, hairstyles, architecture and landscape as very familiar. They might also recognize the faces of the entire Medici clan. As was often the case, the artist put the images of his patrons right into the artwork. In this painting that means not three Magi but thirty-three Magi coming to adore the Christ child. How many verses would the “We Thirty-Three Kings” Christmas carol contain, do you think?
I imagine this inclusion of the Medici clan into the artwork as the Magi made them feel honored and respected, as well as giving them that taste of immortality rich people seem to like, putting their names to arenas and hotels and skyscrapers and other edifices in our day. It was meant to flatter and give praise to the ones who put up the moolah for the painting in the first place. Artists sometimes turned that into a subversive form of protest but here it seems Gozzoli is content to give adoration to the Medici’s as they proceed on their way to the Adoration.
All that aside, there is something about this artwork that reminds me of a fantasy world, some kind of Elf-like realm from The Lord of the Rings perhaps. There is, of course, an ascension that is going on here, as the Magi make their way up to the city where, presumably, the Child King awaits. In fact, just about everything in this painting points up or flows up, giving the viewer the impression of being lifted up themselves. I believe that Gozzoli was attempting to make this entire work an act of adoration, not to the Medici clan, but to God, giving the viewer a chance to ascend in praise. In a way, he’s made his patrons prominent and up front but still made us all, the rich and poor alike, drawn up to the Divine.
Part of the message of the Magi as included in the Christmas narrative is the fact of all nations, all peoples, coming to bow down to Jesus, offering their gifts, whatever that means based on their station in life. This painting welcomes the poor, too, to ascend to meet Christ, the pauper-King, the homeless-at-home in people’s hearts.
Muscular, powerful, detailed and rich, Peter Paul Rubens knew how to blow the viewer away like few other artists before or since. This composition is like an avalanche of adoration directed at the tiny, shimmering Christ Child. Everything directs your attention to the baby, even the smoke from the torches and the posture of the horses. The animals’ eyes glowing in the light is a favorite detail of mine, especially in the eyes of the camels peering over the crowd. You can almost imagine Rubens laughing out of sheer joy as he added this feature.
Rubens has pictured the Magi in a much more traditional way, at least to Western culture sensibilities. There are three of them and each is given a different ethnicity to emphasize the “all nations” aspect of coming to adore the King of Kings. As I look at it I imagine this image alone must have had a lot to do with our popular idea of the Wise Men. The three gifts of Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew are the only reason we’ve come up with the number three. It could’ve been 3, it could’ve been 13, or even thirty-three for all we know.
A fascinating fact about this painting is its role in reconciliation. The town council of Antwerp commissioned Rubens to paint this in 1609, but the piece was given to the Spanish ambassador at the end of a twelve-year war in 1612 as a peace offering. Later it was acquired by Philip IV of Spain. It seems very appropriate that a painting of the powerful and wealthy coming to adore the humble Prince of Peace should function as a symbol to the end of conflict. It brings to mind one of the most familiar passages read at Christmastime:
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” – Luke 2: 14
Those words were spoken to the shepherds in the hills outside of Bethlehem, of course. Tomorrow, in part 3 of this series, we’ll include those caretakers of sheep in the Christmas story in masterpieces.