Glencairn Museum News | Number 1, 2017
For many Christians the Nativity scene is a meaningful expression of religious faith, providing a compelling visual focus during the Christmas season. The Christmas story as represented in a Nativity scene is inspired by events described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. Many of these scenes also incorporate non-biblical Christian texts and legends. In addition to textual sources, nearly two thousand years of artistic innovation have contributed to the development of the imagery. Learning about the history of all of these traditions can lead to a better understanding and appreciation of Nativities.
The biblical story of the Magi is found only in the Gospel of Matthew (2:1-12). According to Matthew the Magi came “from the East” to Jerusalem, asking to see the Christ Child: “For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him” (2:2; Figure 1). The star appeared over the place where the Christ Child was, and the Magi went “into the house” and “fell down and worshiped him.” They offered gifts of “gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11; Figure 2).
Matthew gives no further information about the identity of these travelers, who are the subject of an artistic theme known to art historians as the Adoration of the Magi, in which one or more of the Magi are shown kneeling with their gifts. Modern Nativities may replace the gold, frankincense, and myrrh with precious gifts appropriate to the local culture of the artist. For example, a nacimiento made by Alma Concha of the Jemez Pueblo in New Mexico provides the Magi with gifts associated with Pueblo culture: corn, bread and chili peppers (Figure 3). A Nativity from Peru, on the other hand, depicts the Magi as bringing gifts from the rain forest, including a bunch of bananas, cacao bean pods, and a turtle (Figure 4).
“Magi” is the English form of the original Greek word magoi, a plural noun. Matthew specifies no exact number of Wise Men, but early Christian art presents them as two, three, four, or six in number, with three being the most common. Eventually the number became fixed at three, perhaps because it was assumed that a different man brought each of the three gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The meaning of the term magoi in the context of Matthew’s narrative has been a topic of discussion since the early days of Christianity. They have been variously described as “sages,” “diviners,” “astrologers,” or “priests.” In keeping with Matthew’s statement that the Magi came “from the East,” in the earliest depictions they appear in vaguely eastern dress and headgear. As early as the third century, however, interpreters of the Bible began to identify the Magi as kings, in connection with a prophesy found in the Psalms: “May the kings of Tarshish and of the isles render him tribute, may the kings of Sheba and Seba bring gifts!” (Psalm 72:10). By the time of the Middle Ages the “three kings” were being depicted in art with crowns and elaborate garments (Figure 5). Many modern Nativities continue the “three kings” tradition.
In England, the Venerable Bede (d. 735) wrote that the Magi represent the three parts of the world—Asia, Africa, and Europe—and that they signify the three sons of Noah, who fathered the races of these three continents (see Genesis chapter 10). In time this idea found expression in art, and by the late Middle Ages one of the kings was often depicted as an African (Figure 6). The Magi are sometimes accompanied by retinues, which include animals from their presumed places of origin; camels, horses, and elephants are the most common (Figure 7). The Magi are sometimes shown representing the different stages of life: young, middle aged, and elderly (Figure 8).
The text in this article has been adapted from “Do You See What I See: Imagery in Nativity Scenes,” a visually-rich resource on Glencairn Museum’s website. Glencairn has created this resource to help visitors to our annual World Nativities exhibition—and others interested in the subject—understand the origins of the imagery found in Nativity scenes.
A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.