Regardless of your religion, you’re probably familiar with the image, three solitary men on camels trudging across a vast desert, following a star. It’s even on stamps.
Little is known about the Three Wise Men. They followed a star (or comet or supernova or strange conjunction of planets) to visit the baby Jesus within a few days (or months or years) of his birth. They were rich. They were educated. They were resourceful. They were imaginative and politically astute.
Albeit their names are known. Their identities have been invented (& reinvented) over the past 1600 years.
Gaspar, has brown hair and a brown beard, wears a green cloak and green crown with green jewels. He is the king of Sheba and he brought Frankincense.
Melchior, has long white hair and a white bread and wears a yellow cloak. He is the King of Arabia and brought gold.
Balthazar is black and wears a purple robe. He is the king of Tarse & Eqypt. He brought myrrh.
But, of course, a great artist such as Hans Memling, 1433-1494 broke the rules: he dressed the Magi all in red. The cow is a nice touch. (Also the donkey.)
The Magi legend was embellished by the centuries. The earliest art depicting them is in the fourth century, a fairly simple bas relief: Mother and child, three men and three camels. Before that, nothing.
From this earliest depiction, it’s obvious how the garb, beards and elaborate chalices of gold and treasure became the creations of clever artists. The whole event/idea is an irresistible fairy tale that’s transcended the centuries.
After the 17th Century, three fabulously garbed Magi were depicted in virtually every major Christian church.
This is by Joos van der Beke van Cleve in 1525. His fabrics and composition could have been done last week. He could have designed costumes for Broadway.
The idea of a gathering of animals, royals, peasants and assorted colorfully garbed characters became popular. Their costumes could be spectacular and splendid.
This fanciful confection is by Fra Angelico. 1475.
“Pala Strozzi” 1423 by Gentile de Fabriano
Paintings became increasingly sumptuous and rich, textiles glittering, horses shining, skin smooth and rounded, faces peered. Subjects whispered and flirted--to be glimpsed by the viewer. The cow. The horse. The dog. The elegant old Magi down on his knees. A fabulous rug on his back.
No doubt the portraits of local favored church officials and town fathers are included, as well as brothers, cousins, girlfriends and children. This painting is like a fabulous fairy tale.
The Three Magi ceased to be a mother lode for artists after the 17th century when portraits of rich patrons and political figures and other fanciful scenes became lucrative. Western painting became more secular.
However, the fascination with the simplicity of the crèche scene is very much alive. E.g., this charming contemporary Mexican scene can be purchased for a few dollars –dozens of variations are available at any tourist stop.
The Three Kings are as essential as the haloed Joseph, Mary and the angel. The Mexicans have brought a particular verve to the whole idea.
The fascination with the Three Magi continues . This painting is by Russian artist Oxana Zaika, who was born in 1969. She pushed the whole Magi concept forward.
She’s jumbled their costumes, ditched the swell gold flasks and given one of the camels an amazing smile.
Clearly the Magi have an exciting future ahead.
This Australian stamp, takes up the challenge, gives it a new twist.
Sorta’ makes me wanna’ go try one myself!