The earliest extant portrayal (see photo of fresco from the Catacomb of Priscilla) of the magi, dated to the mid-third century, appears above an arch in the Catacomb of Priscilla, in Rome.1 As in almost all the early images of the magi, they are shown as three men, identical in size, dress (although the color of their clothing varies in the catacomb painting) and race. Each carries a gift. It is difficult to discern the presents in the faded catacomb painting, but usually in art one of them carries a wreath and the others a bowl, jug or box-shaped object. The magi advance in a line toward the child seated on his mother’s lap.Who were the Magi? Read HERE.
In many early images, they appear to point or gaze at a star overhead. Sometimes their camels appear behind them, as in a fourth-century sarcophagus relief in the Vatican Museums (see photo of fourth-century sarcophagus). The early images almost always appear in funerary settings—on catacomb walls and sarcophagi. The magi scene is among the first narrative images to appear in Christian art, and predates most other New Testament scenes as well as any other representation of Jesus’ nativity (a unique fresco [not shown] of Balaam and the Virgin with child in the Catacomb of Priscilla may be the exception). The complex composition and emphasis on narrative detail provide further evidence of the import the story held.
Angels flank the enthroned Mary and Jesus in this sixth-century mosaic from Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy. The magi, followed by wreath-carrying female martyrs, press toward them. The names of the magi do not appear in the New Testament, nor does the number. The Gospel of Matthew speaks simply of “magi from the East.” By the second century, they were identified as three; by the fifth, they were identified as kings and, in the West, given the names Balthassar, Melchior and Gaspar, which appear above the magi (perhaps as a late addition) in this mosaic. Here, Balthassar is shown with a long brown beard. Melchior is a clean-shaven youth. Gaspar has long gray hair; over time, he would become the balding man who kneels before the babe in countless Renaissance images.
By the fifth century, Christian art had spread from catacombs and sarcophagi to vast public spaces, and the magi began to appear in the mosaic decorations of the first great basilicas. These mosaics share the same basic composition seen in earlier funerary art. In a sixth-century mosaic (above) from the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, in Ravenna, Italy, for example, the magi appear as extravagantly dressed triplets, bearing their gifts in fluted vessels as they press forward, gazing up at the star.b Before them, the baby Jesus is seated on Mary’s lap, flanked by angels.
The magi of the Ravenna mosaic may be distinguished only by their hair (one has long brown hair and a beard; one is a clean-shaven youth; the third is an elderly man, his hair greying) and their names (most likely a later addition), which are inscribed above them: Balthassar, Melchior and Gaspar (often spelled Caspar).
Neither their names, their number (three), their physical descriptions nor the date of the magi’s arrival appears in the Bible. Over time these cherished traditions were added to the brief gospel narrative, probably first through oral tradition. By the fourth century, the magi’s arrival was celebrated as the Feast of Epiphany on January 6 (12 days after Jesus’ birth on December 25).2 (Even today, in some parts of the Christian world, January 6, rather than December 25, is a time for exchanging presents, in commemoration of the gifts of the magi.)
Their assumed number was undoubtedly derived from the three gifts presented to Jesus in Matthew. The number wasn’t always taken for granted, however. A wall painting in the Roman catacomb of Domitilla shows four magi; one in the catacomb of Peter and Marcellinus depicts two. A variety of Syrian documents name twelve.3
The names and nationalities of the magi also varied throughout the world, especially in the East.4 An Armenian infancy gospelc from about 500 lists them as Melkon, King of Persia; Gaspar, King of India; and Baldassar, King of Arabia—and is thus closest to the Melchior, Caspar (or Gaspar) and Balthassar of the medieval Latin church.
As this Armenian infancy gospel indicates, the “magi,” a Greek term that might be taken as “sages” or “astrologers” (perhaps even “priests”), had come to be identified with royalty. In 490, the Byzantine emperor Zeno claimed to discover the remains of these “kings” somewhere in Persia and brought them to Constantinople. The relics eventually reached the West during the Crusades—first traveling to Milan and then subsequently to Cologne by Frederick Barbarossa in 1164. Today, they reside in Cologne, in a magnificent reliquary shrine built for them in the late 12th century. There they are known to pilgrims and tourists as the “Three Kings of Cologne.”5 (Read more.)
Read more about the three mystic gifts, HERE. Share