Saturday, January 2, 2016

Epiphany - The evolution of the story of the Journey & the Adoration of the Magi in early art

Stefano Di Giovanni Sassetta (Italian artist, 1394-1450) Journey of the Magi 1435

Western paintings of the Journey & the Adoration of the Magi usually depict 3 Magi, represented as kings, traveling to find the newborn Jesus by following a star; laying before him gifts of gold, frankincense, & myrrh; & lingering to worship him.  Nowhere is the number of magi given in the Bible.

Stefano Di Giovanni Sassetta (Italian artist, 1394-1450) Adoration of the Magi c 1435

In Western Christianity, the arrival of the Magi at the site of Jesus' birth is called the Feast of the Epiphany, celebrated on January 6. The Orthodox Church commemorates the Adoration of the Magi on the Feast of the Nativity on December 25. Christian iconography has considerably expanded the simple biblical account of the Magi given in Matthew (2:1-11). The early church used the story to emphasize that Jesus was recognized, from his infancy, as king of the earth.

 Correggio (Antonio Allegri) (Italian painter, c 1489-1534) Adoration of the Christ Child by the Magi-1517

In the earliest depictions, the exotic Magi are shown wearing Persian dress of trousers & Phrygian caps with gifts held out before them. They echo centuries-older images of tribute-bearers from various Mediterranean & ancient Near Eastern cultures.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (Italian artist, 1449–1494) The Adoration of the Magi

The earliest specific Magi images are from catacomb paintings & sarcophagus reliefs of the 4C. Crowns are first seen in 10C depictions, mostly in the West, where their dress had lost much of its Oriental flavor in most cases.

  Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) Adoration of the Kings

Later Byzantine images often show the Magi wearing small pill-box like hats or skull caps. The Magi were usually shown as about the same age until about this period, but then the idea of depicting the concept of 3 ages of man was introduced into the iconography.

 Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia) (Italian, Siena 1398–1482 Siena) Adoration of the Magi

Occasionally from the 12C, & very often in Northern Europe from the 15C, the Magi are also represent the 3 known parts of the world. Balthasar is often cast as a young African or Moor. An older Caspar is often portrayed with Asian features or dress. Melchior often comes to represent Europe & middle age.

Rogier van der Weyden (Flemish painter, 1400-1464) Adoration of the Magi

From the 14C, large retinues are depicted accompanying the Magi. Their gifts often are contained in spectacular pieces of goldsmith work, & the Magi's clothes are more detailed. By the 15C, the Adoration of the Magi is often a complex exercise for the artist showing his ability to paint crowded scenes of people & animals, as well as the rich silks, furs, jewels, & precious gold of the Kings contrasting with the simple wood of the stable, the straw of Jesus's manger, & the simple, utilitarian clothing of Joseph & the shepherds. The animals depicted often include the ox & ass from the Nativity story & also horses, camels, dogs, & falcons of the kings & sometimes even birds in the rafters of the stable.

 Stefan Lochner (German artist, 1400-1451) Adoration of the Magi 1440s

 Unknown Master, German (active 1470-80 in Mainfranken) Adoration of the Magi

 Unknown Master, German (active in 1420s in the Middle Rhineland).The Adoration of the Magi

  Unknown Master, Spanish (second half of 15th century) Adoration of the Magi

 1514 Workshop of Gerard David (Netherlandish, ca. 1460–1523), Adoration of the Magi

 1470s Hieronymus Bosch. Hieronymus, or Jerome, Bosch, (c 1450-1516) Adoration of the Magi

 Francesco Bassano the Younger (1563-1570) Adoration of Magi

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. The original tribute bearers seem like a memory from the might of the Roman Empire and all adaptions seem to serve the outlook of their time and the developing place of the church in it.
    By the way, in Dutch, the feast of Epiphany is actually called "Drie Koningen" (= "Three Kings") so it was presumably given that name well after the tradition of the number was established.
    And any idea where the names of the Magi came from?