Matthew 2:1–12

The Adoration of the Magi

Commentaries by Timothy Verdon

Works of art by Benozzo Gozzoli, Cristóbal de Villalpando and Unknown Byzantine artist

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Unknown Byzantine artist

The Magi offer gifts to the Madonna and Child , 6th century, Mosaic, Basilica di Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna; Terence Kerr / Alamy Stock Photo

The Nations Will Come to Your Light

Commentary by Timothy Verdon

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As a subject in art, the Adoration of the Magi illustrates the events described in Matthew 2:1–12 and elaborated in the liturgical festivity known by the Greek name of ‘Epiphany’ or ‘Manifestation’. The central meaning of the Adoration for Christians is in fact articulated in 1 Timothy 3:16, which says that Christ, the Messiah promised to the Jews, was also ‘proclaimed to the gentiles, believed throughout the world’.

Matthew’s Gospel was written for a Jewish public, and his account of Wise Men ‘from the east’ bringing gifts to honour the child whose ‘star’ they had seen rise realizes Isaiah’s words to the Chosen People: ‘The nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning brightness’ (60:3 NJB).

A sixth-century mosaic in the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo at Ravenna suggests this inter-cultural message, showing the Magi clothed in garments that would have looked exotic to a Western audience, wearing ‘Phrygian’ (Anatolian) caps, and advancing with their gifts among palm trees. The mosaic, which gives the Wise Men’s traditional names—Balthasar, Melchior, Gaspar—, is part of a larger programme, and visitors to Sant’Apollinare see the Magi approaching figures of Mary and the baby Jesus, in reference to Matthew’s statement that, when the star they followed halted, they finally saw the Child and his mother (Matthew 2:10–11).

Behind the Magi in the Ravenna mosaic, we see a procession of female martyrs who also advance toward Christ. These evoke a further meaning attributed to this event by Christian theologians. One of the gifts brought by the Magi, myrrh, was an unguent used to embalm the dead, and Christ’s manifestation to all nations was thus seen to include the mystery of his death: an interpretation legitimated by Matthew’s insistence on King Herod’s attempt to eliminate the baby Jesus, killing all infants of the same age (Matthew 2:13–16). The women martyrs following the Magi in the mosaic had shared Christ’s death.   

Benozzo Gozzoli

The Journey of the Magi. Detail from the east wall of the Chapel of the Magi , 1459, Fresco, Palazzo Medici Riccardi, Florence; Luisa Ricciarini / Bridgeman Images

Power, Riches, Wisdom, Strength, Honour, Glory, and Blessing

Commentary by Timothy Verdon

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In 1459, the chapel of the then new Medici mansion in Florence was decorated with frescoes by Benozzo Gozzoli depicting the journey of the Magi mentioned in Matthew 2:1. Commissioned by the city’s wealthiest family, the frescoes stress the material splendour of the attire, mounts, and equipages of the Magi and of their entourage, situating the gifts of ‘gold, frankincense and myrrh’ in a context of magnificence in evident harmony with the sumptuous appointments of the Medici residence itself. 

At the same time, the original programme was remarkably faithful to the Gospel account and included an altarpiece representing the new-born Christ adored by his mother, and—above this—a small circular window symbolizing the star whose light guided the wise men. The Medici, who belonged to a lay confraternity which every year staged the Journey of the Magi in the streets of Florence, clearly knew all the details.

The chapel’s true iconographic key is above its outer door, however, where a fresco shows a Lamb on an altar, beneath whose recumbent body hang seven seals. It illustrates Revelation 5:6–12, which speaks of the Lamb who was sacrificed and with his blood bought for God people ‘of every race, language, people and nation’. This external image invites those entering the chapel to interpret the Wise Men’s rich offerings in light of the hymn raised in Revelation: ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was sacrificed to receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory, and blessing’ (5:12 NJB). The Lamb of the hymn corresponds to the Child shown in the chapel’s altarpiece, object of the Wise Men’s quest; the sacrifice by which he bought for God people of every race was that of his body, made present in the Eucharist celebrated at the altar.

Cristóbal de Villalpando

Adoration of the Magi, 1683, Oil on canvas, Fordham University, New York; Used by permission of the Fordham University Art Collection

The Riches of the Sea Will Flow to You

Commentary by Timothy Verdon

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This monumental altarpiece signed by Cristobal de Villalpando (1649–1714), an artist born in Mexico City of an influential Spanish family, is one of many exuberantly Baroque religious works by this master, several still in place in Mexican churches.

Cristobal, trained in Mexico City by Baltasar de Echave Rioja, son of one of the first Hispanic artists to emigrate to ‘New Spain’ (as Mexico was then known), was inspired by the style of the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens, whose works he could have known through engravings. Like the Flemish painter, his colonial emulator treated sacred themes with theatrical verve, giving pride of place to rich costumes and grandiloquent gestures.

His Adoration of the Magi presents the Wise Men as kings, clothing the kneeling personage at the centre in an ermine-bordered mantle and setting a crown atop the turban of the standing figure at our left. The other standing figure (just above the kneeling king) has black skin, reinforcing the traditional belief that the Wise Men who journeyed to Bethlehem represented all human civilizations and ethnicities. He also reminds us that seventeenth-century New Spain forced enslaved people from Africa to work in its mines and plantations in this period.

In colonial Mexico, whose gold, silver, and cane sugar enriched its Spanish rulers, Cristobal de Villalpando stresses the tribute of wealth implied by the Magi’s gifts, evoking Jerusalem’s future splendour as described in Isaiah 60:3–5:

The nations will come to your light and kings to your dawning brightness. … At this sight you will grow radiant, your heart will throb and dilate, since the riches of the sea will flow to you, and the wealth of the nations come to you. (NJB)

In such a context, the inclusion of a Black man among the Magi might perhaps also have troubled the reigning assumptions of those who were prosecuting Spain’s colonial project with the help of enslaved people.

Maybe it caused other hearts to ‘throb’ than those of the mine and plantation owners.

Unknown Byzantine artist :

The Magi offer gifts to the Madonna and Child , 6th century , Mosaic

Benozzo Gozzoli :

The Journey of the Magi. Detail from the east wall of the Chapel of the Magi , 1459 , Fresco

Cristóbal de Villalpando :

Adoration of the Magi, 1683 , Oil on canvas

An Event Rich in Meaning

Comparative commentary by Timothy Verdon

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The events described in Matthew 2:1–12 culminate with the star finally halting above the place where the Child was and the Magi entering the house. There they see Jesus and his mother, fall to their knees, and offer him gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

As interpreted by theologians and communicated in the liturgy, however, the story of the Wise Men has been understood to have various other meanings, several of which emerge in the works discussed here: the universality of the salvation revealed by Christ’s coming; the Saviour’s future death adumbrated in Herod’s hostility; and the eschatological glory of the crucified and risen Lord, who is worthy to ‘receive power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory and blessing’ (Revelation 5:12 NJB).

The liturgy, above all, ascribes multiple meanings to the Magi narrative. The relevant festivity, the Epiphany (‘Manifestation’), celebrated on 6 January by those churches using the Gregorian Calendar, is linked in the Church's liturgical year to two other New Testament events in which Christ was made ‘manifest’ in his divinity: his Baptism in the Jordan river, celebrated on the Sunday following the Epiphany; and his changing of water into wine at the Marriage at Cana, formerly recalled in the Gospel reading of the first Sunday following Christmastide. At the Baptism God the Father acknowledged Jesus as his Son and the Holy Spirit descended upon him (Matthew 3:16–17; Mark 1:9–11; Luke 3:21–22; cf. John 1:28–34), while at the Marriage at Cana Jesus used his divine power to manifest himself, transforming water into wine (John 2:1–11). These events of his adult life were seen as continuing the revelation given to the Magi by the star that led them to Christ.

A medieval text—the antiphon sung or recited to introduce and conclude the Canticle of Zechariah (or ‘Benedictus’) at Lauds on the Epiphany—suggests how in the past Christians wove the three events into one, fusing the arrival of the Magi bearing gifts with Christ’s Baptism in the Jordan and his miraculous transformation of water into wine at a wedding party. The author of the antiphon takes for granted that those using his text will know that in the Gospel Christ presents himself as ‘bridegroom’ (Matthew 9:15) and the New Testament sees the Church as the ‘bride’ he made worthy of himself by cleansing her (Ephesians 5:22–27). He writes: ‘Today the Church is joined to her heavenly spouse, for Christ washed her of her sins in the Jordan’ (HODIE CAELESTI SPONSO JUNCTA EST ECCLESIA QUONIAM IN JORDANE LAVIT CHRISTUS EJUS CRIMINA). He then evokes the marriage feast and its guests, saying: ‘the Magi hurry with their gifts to the royal wedding’ (CURRUNT CUM MUNERIBUS MAGI AD REGALES NUPTIAS), and concludes: ‘and with water turned to wine, the guests make merry, Alleluia!’ (ET EX ACQUA FACTO VINO LAETENTUR CONVIVAE, ALLELUIA!).

This conflation of scriptural images suggests the spirit in which artists have usually treated the Adoration of the Magi theme, describing the historical event in tones of eschatological jubilation. The many personages, fine clothing, costly gifts, and air of joy befit the ‘wedding feast of the Lamb’, as Revelation 19:9 calls Christ’s ultimate victory—the moment when Revelation’s author:

[H]eard what seemed to be the voices of a huge crowd, like the sound of the ocean or the great roar of thunder, answering: ‘Alleluia! The reign of the Lord our God has begun; let us be glad and joyful and give glory to God because this is the time for the marriage of the Lamb. His bride is ready, and she has been able to dress herself in dazzling white linen, because her linen is made of the good deeds of the saints’. (Revelation 19:6–8 NJB)

Next exhibition: Matthew 2:13–15

Matthew 2:1–12

Revised Standard Version

2 Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, 2“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him.” 3When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it is written by the prophet:

6‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;

for from you shall come a ruler

who will govern my people Israel.’ ”

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star appeared; 8and he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” 9When they had heard the king they went their way; and lo, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy; 11and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.