The Magi from Paris

The Magi have been returning here to Río Wang year after year. First they descended from the bronze gates of the cathedral of Pisa, proving with early Christian and Orthodox depictions that in this world we can see them only through a glass, darkly, and cannot know anything about their true identity. Then we met them and other kings in Persia, understandably, since they came from there according to the earliest tradition. Later we saw how the uncrowned kings of Florence, the Medici, made the procession of the Three Kings Magi a city feast representing the power of their family, and how they immortalized it in a number of public works of art with the greatest artists, Fra Angelico, Botticelli or Leonardo, while preserving their most gorgeous representation for their private chapel in the Medici Palace. An this year they are coming from Paris.

In Prince Berry’s famous Beautiful Book of Hours, the masterpiece of Franco-Flemish Gothic manuscript art, painted by the Limbourg brothers between 1412 and 1416, the Feast of the Magi is illustrated by a double miniature on pages 51v-52r. The double full-page depiction marks the importance of the feast for the contemporary aristocracy. However, it is strange that the two miniatures painted on two separate sheets of parchment were only retrospectively inserted into the codex, in the Christmas section of the Marian lauds.

In the right-side picture we see a traditional Magi scene. The Magi arrive with a princely cortege before the Holy Family sitting in the barn. The oldest king is already kneeling before the King of Kings and giving Him his gift. In the background, on a green hill, shepherds graze their flocks and look up at the sky, where, under a heavenly lunette protruding from the earthly world, we see both the angels announcing the birth and the star of Bethlehem leading the Magi.

In the left-side picture, however, we see an unusual episode. The thre Magi and their entourage are coming from three winds towards the Gothic image column in the center. Such roadside image columns, which displayed statues or pictures of saints to the travelers and blessed their journey, lined the road from Paris to St. Denis. Around them, there is the wilderness, with animals usually symbolizing the wilderness of Bethlehem, like the lion and the bear (the latter is also the crest animal of Prince Berry). And in the background, a magnificent city is shining under a golden sun, apparently Jerusalem. However, it is unmistakably identified by the characteristic buildings of medieval Paris, Notre-Dame, Sainte-Chapelle and Louvre, which are also included in earlier miniatures of the codex.

The wilderness and the city refer to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and the three groups suggest that the three Magi met for the first time in Bethlehem. Yet in the Gospels it is stated that they came together to Jerusalem to inquire about the newborn king of the Jews, whose star they saw in the east.

However, the Limbourg brothers and their contemporaries read more than the Gospel of Matthew. The laconic information of the Gospels were readily imagined further by medieval people who preferred to make up colorful precedents histories to such brief, in medias res introductions like His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit” or “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked”. Such was the Gospel of James (Protoevangelium Jacobi), which tells the story of Mary from her conception to that of Jesus. And such book was the Historia trium regum, the History of the Three Kings, that is, the Magi.

The book was written by the Carmelite monk Johannes de Hildesheim (1310-1375), author of several popular books, sometime after 1364, on commission by the Bishop of Münster, to provide a worthy spiritual and historical background for the relics of the Magi revered in Cologne. The relics had been collected by Empress Helena, mother of Constantine the Great, in the Holy Land, from where she took them to the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and later entrusted by Constantine to the custody of Bishop Eustorgius of Milan. From Milan they were sent to Cologne during the Investiture Controversy by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1164, after he conquered the city. In Cologne they attracted masses of pilgrims throughout the Middle Ages. The Historia trium regum, immediately translated into their mother tongues, German, French, Flemish and English, served as their “guidebook”.

The reliquiary of the Magi in the Cologne Cathedral, 1181-1230, work of Nicholas of Verdun, the masterpiece of Meuse jewelry

This book has gathered everything worth or not worth knowing about the Magi from a number of authentic or imaginative sources. It gives a detailed description of their countries, the “three Indies” (one of which appears to have been somewhere in Nubia), their customs and products, and how the three kings took notice of the Star of Bethlehem independently of each other, how rich entourage they composed, and how they miraculously arrived in only twelve days to Jerusalem. But when they were only two miles away from the city, a great dark cloud covered the sky and the star, “as Isaias says”, says Johannes: “Arise, shine, Jerusalem, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord rises upon you. See, darkness covers the earth, and thick darkness is over the peoples, but the Lord rises upon you, and his glory appears over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.” (Is 60:1-3).

Palestrina: Surge, illuminare Jerusalem (Arise, shine, Jerusalem) (1575) – Tallis Scholars

And “under the cloud they got closer and closer to Jerusalem, and finally they met under the city, and sent ambassadors to each other and asked each other what they were looking for there. And when it turned out that they were all involved in the same matter, they became very happy and rode together, hugging and kissing each other, and their determination to search further became even sronger and hotter.”

The description of the meeting in the 1483 German edition of Historia trium regum. Strasbourg, Heinrich Knoblotzer

Thus, the first miniature represents this apocryphal moment: when the three rulers of “the three Indies”, led by the same star, finally meet under Jerusalem on a crossroads localized by the Historia somewhere between the Golgotha and the Mount of Olives, both lying outside the city at that time.

And the depiction of the Magi owes something else to the Historia. The previous chapters describe in detail how many treasures, ornate equipments and great entourage – “riche tresoure and riche ornamentis and grete multitude of pepil”, as the contemporary English translation says – were collected by the King Magi before they set out, thereby fulfilling the continuation of the above prophecy of Isaiah: “Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn. Lift up your eyes and look about you: … The wealth on the seas will be brought to you, to you the riches of the nations will come. Herds of camels will cover your land, young camels of Midian and Ephah. And all from Sheba will come, bearing gold and incense and proclaiming the praise of the Lord. All Kedar’s flocks will be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth will serve you; they will be accepted as offerings on my altar, and I will adorn my glorious temple. Who are these that fly along like clouds, like doves to their nests? Surely the islands look to me; in the lead are the ships of Tarshish, bringing your children from afar, with their silver and gold, to the honor of the Lord your God.” (Is 60:3-9).

And this is how the depiction of the three Kings Magi develops from a previous three-figure composition into a rich procession covering all the landscape, which really suits kings, and which aristocratic customers like to identify with. It is no coincidence that the first such representation is found in the Book of Hours of Prince Berry, a son of a king of France, jut a few decades after the French translation of the Historia. And this attractive model will soon be followed by other representative commissions. With the spread of International Gothic from the Paris court, the new composition is conveyed to the court of Avignon, and from there, to the painting of Siena and Florence, where, in the absence of aristocrats, the emerging Medici employ it and portray themselves in the shape of the kings that turn their wealth to godly purposes.

Bartolo di Fredi: Adoration of the kings, 1375-85, originally in the Siena Cathedral, today in Siena’s Pinacoteca Nazionale

Gentile da Fabriano: Adoration of the kings, 1423, today in the Uffizi (click for details!)

Benozzo Gozzoli: The march of the Three Kings on the walls of the Medici Palace in Florence, 1459. Detail with the portraits of the Medici family, and with the twelve-year old Lorenzo il Magnifico in the middle. For the complete fresco and its history, see our previous post.

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