Follow the Star: The Magi in Glencairn’s "World Nativities" Exhibition

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.


Figure 1: One of three Nativity scenes designed in the 1920s by Bryn Athyn artist Winfred S. Hyatt shows the Magi gazing at the Star of Bethlehem. The scenes were commissioned by Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn for use in their home at Cairnwood, where they were considered to be the most important element in the elaborate Christmas decorations in the parlor hall. A letter written by Raymond Pitcairn to Hyatt during the beginning of the work (January 15, 1924) indicates his desire that historical accuracy be taken into account as well as artistic composition. When the Pitcairn family moved to Glencairn in 1939, the three-part Nativity scene moved with them. Collection of Glencairn Museum.


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).


Figure 2: This Neapolitan Presepio (Nativity) is the work of the Giuseppe and Marco Ferrigno company, a fourth-generation family business located in Naples, Italy. The art has been passed from father to son since 1836, and today the Ferrignos use traditional methods and materials to make Presepio figures and scenes in the 18th-century Neapolitan style. Most of the elements in this Presepio are traditional, including the Roman ruin to symbolize the end of the pagan world, the arrival of the three Magi with gold, frankincense and myrrh, and shepherd musicians (zampognari). Collection of Glencairn Museum.


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).


Figure 3: This nacimiento was made by Alma Concha (1941 – ) of the Jemez Pueblo, New Mexico, from red and buff clay in the late 1970s or early 1980s. The Magi are holding gifts appropriate to Pueblo culture: bread, corn, and chili peppers. Collection of Glencairn Museum.


Figure 4: This Nativity from Peru, made by the Mamani family, depicts the figures as Shipibo, an indigenous people along the Ucayali River. The Magi bring gifts from the rain forest, including a bunch of bananas, cacao bean pods, and a turtle. A wild boar and a tapir have taken the place of the traditional ox and donkey. The intricate geometric designs on the clothing of the figures are inspired by those found on traditional Shipibo textiles and pottery. Collection of Glencairn Museum.


“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.


Figure 5: This limestone relief with the Adoration of the Magi, in the collection of Glencairn Museum (09.SP.119), was made in 13th-century France. All three of the Magi are represented as kings with crowns, in keeping with medieval tradition. The first king, whose arm is broken off, is depicted kneeling and presenting a gift. Collection of Glencairn Museum.


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).


Figure 6: The origin of the French tradition of santons or “little saints” is credited to Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764–1822), who created the first Provençal village characters to go along with the standard Nativity figures in 1797. In a Provençal Nativity scene, in addition to the Magi and the shepherds, the entire village turns out to see the Christmas miracle, many bearing their own gifts for the baby Jesus. On loan from the National Christmas Center and Museum, Lancaster, PA.


Figure 7: The figures and structures in this magnificent Presepio, or Nativity scene, were collected over a period of more than thirty years by the late Elizabeth Anne Evans of Bucks County during her annual trips to Naples, Italy. The figures, which date to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, are made from terracotta, wood, wire, cloth and San Leucio silks. There are four major themes in a Neapolitan Presepio: the Nativity of Jesus Christ, the Adoration of the Shepherds, the Adoration of the Wise Men, and the Inn at Bethlehem. In most Presepi, as in the one on exhibit at Glencairn, the four themes are combined into a single integrated scene. On loan from the Fleisher Art Memorial, Philadelphia, PA.


Figure 8: This Nativity scene, inspired by the tradition of the Presepio in Naples, Italy, was made by the American artists Karen Loccisano and R. Michael Palan. A Presepio presents the birth of Jesus Christ in the context of an 18th-century Italian village. The Holy Family is presented within a Roman ruin, which represents the end of the pagan world, from the remnants of which Christianity was born. The Magi in this Nativity represent three different ages (young, middle aged, and elderly) as well as three different continents (Africa, Asia, and Europe). On loan from Karen Loccisano and R. Michael Palan.


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.

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