The Three Kings

Who are these three riders going uphill on the Romanesque bronze door of the cathedral of Pisa? Of course, the Three Kings, we say self-evidently, although, if you think about it more, no attribute proves it: no star and no manger. In our culture, the image of three riders has become an obvious visual topos over the centuries, and it evokes the Three Kings even when it comes to something completely different.

Originally, the three figures had neither horses nor crowns. They came to Bethlehem in simple clothes, on foot, carrying by hand their gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh. This is how we see them in their earliest portrayal, in the Greek Room of the Priscilla Catacomb in Rome, and for centuries afterwards.

A thousand years later, the legend of the Pisan gate, MAGIS (correctly Magi) refers to the humble beginnings. The Latin word, written in a curious local orthography, like in many other places of the bronze gate, refers to the second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked: Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Mt 2:1-2)

The adoration of the Wise Men, with the inscription “Magi”, in Anglo-Saxon runes. From the 8th-century Franks Casket, London, British Museum

What the King James Version translates wise men, is μάγοι in the original Greek, and magi in the Vulgata: “magicians”. But already in Matthew’s time, the Greek word had two meaning. One was “magician”, like Simon the Magician or Sorcerer in the Acts of Apostles. The other, original meaning, however, was the Persian magūs, which referred to the Zoroastrian priesthood, and, more broadly, to Persian astronomers. The Zoroastrian Persians also had their own traditions of a Savior to be born, and the Gospel suggests – which the Syrian and Armenian apocryphals then expand in detail – that they also recognized it in Jesus. That is why the magi are depicted even in the 5th century in Persian clothes and distinctive Persian hats. It is a strange twist in the story, that, according to the tradition, the Persian army devastating the Holy Land during the Byzantine-Persian War spared the Church of Bethlehem, because on its gate three characteristic Persian magi brought gifts to the just-born Savior.

The three Persian magi on the 6th-century mosaic of San Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna

The three Pagan philosophers worshiping Jesus might have been an attractive model to the newly converted Roman Christians, since they could identify themselves with them. This is why they are so often represented on sarcophagi. And probably for the same reason they are accompanied, from the earliest times, by another motif, the ox and donkey above the manger. These two animals, an inseparable part of all Nativity pictures, are surprisingly never mentioned in the Gospels. In fact, they are only visual representations of the quotation from Isaiah: “The ox knows his master, the donkey his lord’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” (Is 1:3) Therefore, they symbolize the same as the three Persian wise men: that Christians converted from paganism – like, for example, the one lying in this sarcophagus – are more devoted to the true God than the Jews.

The ox and donkey focusing on the manger, as a confession of faith on Stilicho’s sarcophagus (ca. 385) in Milan’s San Ambrogio Basilica

A 4th-century sarcophagus, above with the ox and donkey, and below with the three magi. Arles, Musée de l’Arles et de la Provence Antique

An Ethiopian icon

The Christian exegesis of te first centuries used similar Old Testament parallels to draw out with more detailed features the very sketchy figures of the three wise men of the Gospels. Thus, for example, the star they followed was not considered a true star, but a reference to the prophecy of the pagan prophet Balaam: “A star will come out of Jacob, a scepter will rise out of Israel.” (Num 24:17) So the wise men, and later the kings in the pictures, originally follow not a star, but an angel who leads them to the “Star of Jacob”, that is, Jesus, and who then warns them to go back by another way. How much ink could be saved by the amateur astronomers, if they considered this, instead of trying to reconstruct the wildest constellations and comets for the supposed birthday of Jesus?

Altar of Duke Ratchis, Cividale, 737

Stonemason Gislebertus: The dream of the three kings. Column head in the Cathedral of Autun, 1125-1135

The dream of the three kings in the Salzburg Missal (ca. 1478-1489, München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek 15708 I, fol. 63r)

In the same way, the wise men bringing gold, frankincense and myrrh became kings by virtue of that verse of the Psalm: “May the kings of Tarshish and of distant shores bring tribute to him, may the kings of Sheba and Seba present him gifts. May the gold of Sheba be given to him.” (Ps 72:10). In the great 14th-century Catalan Atlas – drawn by our old acquaintance, the Mallorcan Jewish cartographer Jefudà Cresques – the three kings even appear next to the name of Tarshish, revealing the source of the identification.

Prophecy is also read elsewhere about the gifts: “Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels from Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense, and proclaiming the praise of the Lord.” (Is 60:6). For this reason – and not for the sake of exoticism – camels are already included in the earliest representations with the three magi, whether on the sarcophagi, or in later paintings.

Adoration of the magi. Sarcophagus from Basilica Sant’Agnese in Rome. Vatican, Museo Pio Cristiano, Inv. 31459

Giotto: Adoration of the Kings. Padova, Scrovegni Chapel, ca. 1305

Bartolo di Fredi: Adoration of the Kings, 1385. Siena, Pinacoteca Nazionale, originally perhaps in the Duomo of Siena. In the background, in the city of Jerusalem we can discover our old acquaintance, the typical domed church of the Holy Sepulchre

On the Pisan bronze gate, made in 1181, we also find the scene of the Nativity. Bonanno Pisano, the master of the gate, had the original solution – repeated five years later on the gate of the Cathedral of Monreale – of dividing each biblical scene into two adjacent tables of the gate. The two tables look at each other and respond to each other. Here, the scene of the Nativity and the adoration of the shepherds to the left is complemented by the table of the three kings coming from the right, at the bottom of which, as a footnote interpreting the Nativity, the small-print scene of the fall of Adam and Eve and their expulsion from Paradise is also represented. This refers to the well-known parallel, that “Adam is the pattern of the One to come” (Rom 5:14), and that “Death from Eve, life from Mary” (St. Jerome, 22.)

The separation of the two scenes also corresponds to the separation of the two feasts, Christmas and Epiphany, which were celebrated by the first Christians on the same day. The reason for the separation is that the Latin and Greek churches calculated the birth of Christ in different days: the Latins on 25 December, while the Greeks on 6 January. Not because – as it has been suggested since the 18th century – the Roman Christians wanted to christianize the pagan feast of Sol Invictus, since this feast was only introduced by Emperor Aurelianus (270-275), precisely to repaganize the Christian feast of Christmas. But rather because the Latin and the Greek solar calendars converted the day of Christ’s death, 14 Nisan in the Jewish lunar calendar, to different days, and, according to the biblical tradition, the prophets died the same day they were conceived. Thus, the Roman calendar converted 14 Nisan to 25 March – which is still the celebration of the Annunciation –, so Jesus was born on 25 December, while the Greek calendar to 6 April, so He had to be born on 6 January. By the 4th century, the Greek world had already adopted the Roman calendar, and the Greek church also celebrates Christmas on 25 December (which today falls on our 7 January, due to the difference between the Gregorian and Julian calendars), but the tradition preserved the importance of 6 January. The three kings continue to arrive on this day, just as Jesus is baptized on this day thirty years later. And the two former dates of Christmas constitute a frame for the festive garland of the Twelve Days of Christmas.

The scene divided in two by Bonanno Pisano also symbolizes the unity of the two churches. In fact, the gate of the Latin cathedral displays a Nativity according to the Orthodox tradition. In the late 12th century, the last peak of Constantinople, Byzantine icons inspired Italian art, and the early Renaissance will also germinate from them in the hands of Giotto and Duccio. The model used by Bonanno Pisano can be illustrated with the Nativity icon of the Church of the Dormition of Mary in Berat:

The 16th-century icon, written by Nicola, son of Onufri, the greatest icon painter of Epirus, follows the rules of Orthodox iconography, and every part of it carries a theological reference. In the middle of the rocky landscape, the newborn Jesus lies in a cave, wrapped in swaddling clothes, just as He will lay in a cave, wrapped in a shroud, after His death on the cross. He is recognized as their Lord by the ox and the donkey. A star appears in the sky above the manger, its ray points to the Star of Jacob appearing on the earth. The three kings, representing the pagans, and the shepherds called by the angels, representing the Jews, are coming towards Him. Mary, lying in glorious light, looks to the lower left corner of the picture, where a little tree crops up, referring to the tree of Jesse, the descendance of Jesus: “A shot will come up from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a branch will bear fruit.” (Is 11:1) In the lower region, two scenes from the apocryphal gospel of James, both of which are examples of faith overcoming doubt: Salome, the midwife helping at the birth of Jesus, who personally made sure of the virginity of Mary, and Joseph, tempted by Satan coming in the disguise of an old man, with the question: if the conception of Jesus was divine, why did He come to the world in an earthly way?

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Each scene in the two icons are as per specification. They do not primarily narrate past events, but rather visualize verses of the Old Testament, which formulate the theological truth of the Nativity. The figures are needed to make visible, as in a mirror, the real significance of this event. The icon is not a representation in the Western sense, but a window onto the transcendence.

The only real figures, depicted for themselves on both icons, are the lambs, which are wandering free from all iconographic constraints in the transcendent space of the icon. They do not care about the biggest event in world history happening just around them, but they go on grazing, studying the grass, doing their business, like the skating kids in Brueghel’s pictures. They offer an excuse for the painter to use them as decorative motifs, or to happily play with them, like the medieval manuscript painters with the little figures of monsters in the margins. But if we think about Rilke’s Eight ecloge, we can also attach significance to them. They are the animal which does not need visual mediation, because they already see face to face, and by penetrating into the transcendent space of the picture, and freely wandering in it, they also invite us, the viewers, like the children’s faces looking out from the lower corners of the Renaissance paintings.

Mit allen Augen sieht die Kreatur
das Offene… Frei von Tod.
Ihn sehen wir allein; das freie Tier
hat seinen Untergang stets hinter sich
und vor sich Gott, und wenn es geht, so gehts
in Ewigkeit, so wie die Brunnen gehen.
With all its eyes the animal world
beholds the Open. … Free from death.
Only we see death; the free animal has its demise
perpetually behind it, and before it always
God, and when it moves, it moves into eternity,
the way brooks and running springs move.

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