In Christian tradition the Magi, also known as the Three Wise Men, The Three Kings, or Kings from the east, are Zoroastrian judicial astrologers or magi from Ancient Persia who according to the Gospel of Matthew came “from the east to Jerusalem”, to worship the Infant Jesus, whom they describe as the Christ “born King of the Jews”. According to Matthew, they followed a star, and as they approached Jerusalem, Herod tried to trick them into revealing where Jesus was, but once they had found Jesus they left by a different route. According to Matthew, upon finding Jesus, the magi gave him an unspecified number of gifts, amongst which are three highly symbolic ones.
The Magi depicted in art
The Magi most frequently appear in European art in the Adoration of the Magi; less often The Journey of the Magi has been a popular topos. More generally they appear in popular Nativity scenes and other Christmas decorations that have their origins in the Neapolitan variety of the Italian presepio or Nativity crèche; they are featured in Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, and in several Christmas carols, of which the best-known English one is “We Three Kings”. Artists have also allegorised the theme to represent the three ages of man. Since the Age of Discoveries, the Kings also represent three parts of the world in western art. Balthasar is thus represented as a young African or Moor and Caspar may be depicted with distinctive Oriental features. In Orthodox Art they are depicted as Persians
An early Anglo-Saxon picture survives on the Franks Casket, probably a non-Christian king’s hoard-box (early 7th century, whalebone carving); or rather the hoard-box survived Christian attacks on non-Christian art and sculpture because of that picture. In its composition it follows the oriental style, which renders a courtly scene, with the Virgin and Christ facing the spectator, while the Magi devoutly approach from the (left) side. Even amongst non-Christians who had heard of the Christian story of the Magi, the motif was quite popular, since the Magi had endured a long journey and were generous. Instead of an angel, the picture places a swan, interpretable as the hero’s fylgja (a protecting spirit, and shapeshifter).
In the film Donovan’s Reef, a Christmas play is held in French Polynesia. However, instead of the traditional correspondence of Magi to continents, the version for Polynesian Catholics features the king of Polynesia, the king of America, and the king of China.
Further sentimental narrative detail was added in the novel and movie Ben-Hur, where Balthasar appears as an old man, who goes back to Palestine to see the former child Jesus become an adult.
According to Howard Clarke, in the United States, Christmas cards featuring magi outsell those with shepherds.
In Michael Ende’s children books Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver and Jim Button and the Wild 13, one of the Three Kings plays a major role in one of the main character’s background.
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