The Nativity
The Magi - 1

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. Then Herod, when he had privily called the wise men, enquired of them diligently what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also. When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.  And when they were come into the house, they saw the young child with Mary his mother, and fell down, and worshipped him: and when they had opened their treasures, they presented unto him gifts; gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.  And being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.   (Matthew Ch. 2 v 1 - 12)

Who were they?
No simple answers here! 
If we accept the veracity of the biblical account, the name' magi' would suggest they were high priests from Persia described by the Catholic Encyclopaedia as members of  'the sacred caste of the Medes.' However, even this source accepts that it is difficult to produce convincing evidence for the reality of the Magi. Geza Vermes in The Nativity suggests that the story was simply concocted by the author of St Matthew's gospel, and he  attempts to explore his sources and the theological points he is trying to make.  He discusses the visit to Rome of the Armenian king Tiridates (described by Pliny as a Magus) to worship the Emperor Nero around 50m- 60 AD; as with the Magi, When Nero's emperorship was confirmed Tiridates and his court  returned home by a different route. Vermes suggestion is that this story provided a model for that of the Magi. 
  What is certainly true is that the simple Gospel narrative above did not satisfy its audience, particularly artists, and, as with so many of the infancy narratives, embroidery began in earnest.

How many? 
The gospel story doesn't say how many magi there were - so where did the number three come from? Apparently Origen in the Contra Celsum was the first to come up with the idea, almost certainly from the number of gifts, and the presumption that they brought one each. 

In western art, the Magi are named Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior.  They are named in this mosaic from Sant' Appolinaire Nuovo in  Ravenna. The mosaic itself dates from around 630, but it has been much altered over the years and the names may have been added later. 

The names may have originated around 500 in a Greek Ms, translated into Latin as Excerpta Latina Barbari:
   At that time in the reign of Augustus, on 1st January the Magi brought him gifts and worshipped him. The names of the Magi were Bithisarea, Melichior and Gathaspa.

Spot the Magus
 This may take some time!
When I started this project I thought that identifying which magus was which would be an easy job. Sadly I'm more confused now that when I started. 
  There are three variables: their age, their name and their gift. If you want, you can add a fourth - ethnicity - but three is plenty to be going on with. The problem is - no-one agrees. Here's James Hall in his much respected
Dictionary of subjects and symbols in Art:
The adoration itself shows Caspar, or Jasper, the oldest,  kneeling before the infant Christ in the virgin’s lap, offering his gift of gold. Behind him stands Balthasar, a negro, and Melchior, the youngest.

    Compare this with Anna Jameson in Legends of the Madonna:
    In the legends of the fourteenth century, the kings had become distinct personages, under the names of Caspar (Or Jasper) Melchior, and Balthasar: the first being always a very aged man, with a long white beard; the second, a middle-aged  man; the third is young, and frequently he is a Moor or negro, to express the King of Ethiopia or Nubia, and also to indicate that when the Gentiles were called to salvation, all the continents and races of the Earth, of whatever complexion, were included.
  In the old legend of the three Kings, as inserted in Wright’s ‘Chester Mysteries,’ Jasper, or Caspar, is King of Tarsus, the land of Merchants; he makes the offering of gold. Melchior, the king of Arabia and Nubia, offers frankincense; and Balthasar, King of Saba, ‘the land of spices and all manner of precious gums’ offers myrrh.

Now this one:
   Balthasar, the youngest magus, bears frankincense and represents Africa. To the left stands Caspar, middle-aged, bearing gold and representing Asia. On his knees is Melchior, oldest, bearing myrrh and representing Europe.  (Art site description of Adoration of the Magi  by Vicente Gil )

Or this one:
Long tradition has made them three; one Semitic, one European, one African; one young, one middle-aged, one old; by name Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Caspar is old and semitic, Melchior is middle-aged and European, Balthasar is young and African. (source unknown, but it is repeated verbatim over 50 times on the internet so it must be true!)

In a text describing the Journey of the Magi in the Medici chapel, with images based on important visitors to Florence:

The Magi themselves were carefully chosen. The oldest, Melchior, is assumed to represent Joseph, Patriarch of Constantinople, leader of the Orthodox Church and a key speaker at the Council of Florence. Balthazar, the middle-aged Magi, represents John VIII Paleologus, Emperor of Byzantium, and Cosimo's guest of honour. The youngest, Caspar, is believed to be Cosimo's grandson, Lorenzo de'Medici. 

Or finally this one from an assemblage of writing from the eighth century known as the Collectanea of pseudo-Bede,

The first Magus was Melchior, an old man with long white hair and a long beard. It was he who presented gold, symbol of divine royalty. The second, named Caspar, was young, beardless, and ruddy; he honoured Jesus by giving incense, an offering that manifested his divinity. The third, named Balthasar, of dark complexion (fuscus), wearing a full beard…bore witness by offering myrrh, that the Son of Man would die. 
(I am grateful to Frank de Stefano for drawing my attention to this one, quoted in Emile Male, Religious Art in France, The Thirteenth Century

So that's that one sorted then.

All one can say is that artists rarely labelled their pictures as the Ravenna mosaic does, and that traditions change over time and in different locations. There was an attempt in later depictions to identify the Magi with different countries, which is when the African magi began to appear. All one can say is that in most versions the oldest Magus had a white beard and brought the gold. 

   Of course, all of this, and the designation of the Magi as kings (which was, it seems, dreamed up by Tertullian,)  has no biblical authority at all, however often it is repeated in Christmas carols.

  Subjects in art
  By far the most common theme is the Adoration of the Magi. As we've seen when looking at later Nativity images, these became increasing complex and it is not always easy to pick out the Magi from  their extended entourage.

Giotto: Scrovegni Chapel Padua

Albrecht Durer: Uffizi, Florence

Abraham Bloemaert
Musée des Beaux-Arts, Grenoble

Prospero Fontana: 
Private Collection

Hieronymous Bosch (Detail)
Prado, Madrid

Gentile da Fabriano

Filippino Lippi

Two from the Uffizi - join the queue!

The Magi - part 2

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